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New President, Old Problem: The Israeli-Palestinian Question Under Biden

While significant efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aren’t expected over the next four years, stabilization could become the focus
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The decades-old Israeli-Palestinian conflict has never topped the US political agenda, and its urgency in international politics was even further marginalized after the Arab Spring. Under the Trump administration, not only was the issue nowhere to be found on the agenda, worse yet, US policies came to aggravate realities on the ground.

Nonetheless, with the election of US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris, the question of whether the Israeli-Palestinian issue could be addressed has resurfaced. Depending on one’s expectations of a “resolution”, the answer to this question can be ‘yes’ or ‘no’.

Under the new administration, many analysts agree that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be prioritized. Such is primarily based on Biden’s record as vice president and as a senator, coupled with the significant challenges facing US domestic politics. Meaningful engagement is not to be expected, especially during his first year in office. As for the long term, no significant changes are being forecast aside from humble expectations that foreign policy activism slightly increases in comparison to that seen during the Obama years.

Even though a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian issue will most likely continue to occupy its usual place on the backburner, this diminishes neither its importance nor urgency. From a normative perspective, a solution is “possible and necessary”, as noted by Nimrod Goren, the Head of the Mitvim Institute. Yet before discussing solutions and possible changes that could emerge under Biden, it is important to revisit how Trump worked to further deteriorate stability in the Middle East, and particularly in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The Trump Effect: Exacerbating the Problem

The Trump administration pursued more than its fair share of reckless foreign policies with regard to the Middle East and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While Trump’s unbridled support for Israel wasn’t surprising, moving the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem was nonetheless quite controversial. This move can be considered as part and parcel of the “de-Palestinianization” of Jerusalem. It also instantly relinquished one of the most vital components of US leverage in incentivizing Israel to work towards peace with Palestinians. Moreover, Trump’s support of Israel’s annexation of the Jordan Valley, under the so-called “Deal of the Century”, had major repercussions for the conflict. In the process, he sided with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in normalizing settlements in occupied territories.

Trump also exerted financial pressure on Palestinians by preventing the Gulf states from supporting them. Moreover, Israel’s normalization of relations with Arab monarchies has left Palestinian leadership utterly isolated. According to Peter Beinart, this normalization has fostered unstated notions that while Israel violates international law and perpetrates humanitarian crises, Palestinians are left to accept whatever crumbs they are given.

Last but not least, as certain Israeli-Arab relations underwent normalization, Palestinians and Palestinian leadership were further marginalized and delegitimized. For instance, the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, DC was closed in 2018 by the Trump administration on the pretext that it was not taking steps to advance negotiations with Israel. In 2019, the US House of Representatives also passed legislation to prevent the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement that boycott Israel.

What Can Biden Change?

Biden strongly supports Israel. He voted to move the US Embassy to Jerusalem in 1995 when he was a Delaware Senator. More recently, he also clearly stated that he will not revert the US Embassy back to Tel Aviv, even though he saw the act as “short-sighted and frivolous”. He also has good relations with the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), one of Israel’s most influential lobbying groups in the US. Considering this background, it is expected that his administration will continue to provide unconditional aid to Israel, albeit tinged with rhetorical opposition to Jewish settlements. Additionally, Biden has indicated that he will continue to support efforts to normalize relations between Arab states and Israel.

On the other hand, Biden will restore US infrastructural and economic aid to Palestinians. Moreover, he promised to reopen the PLO mission in Washington, DC. Regarding diplomatic relations between Israel and Palestine, the Biden administration is very clear that the two-state solution is the ultimate goal. Biden is no stranger to the issue when considering his vice presidency and decades-long career in Senate. Therefore, he is expected to build upon the framework left behind by the Obama administration when it comes to the Middle East peace process.

In short, while significant efforts to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict aren’t expected over the next four years, stabilization could become the focus. Ultimately, neither Biden nor any other single person or government can solve the issue alone.

Preconditions to Potential Solutions

Three essential criteria must be met, together or separately, for any progress to be made in resolving the conflict. First of all, political will is sine qua non for any solution. Such is illustrated in the Israel-Egypt Peace Agreement of 1979. Here, despite their conservative governments, lack of agreement on all aspects of the resolution, and an absence of public support, Menachem Begin’s Likud government and the Anwar Sadat government came to the table ready to make a deal. The sense of urgency in resolving a mutually harmful stalemate generated political will at the time. Nonetheless, currently, neither the Israeli, Palestinian, nor US governments, much less the broader international community, have the political will to solve the issue. There is no need for a new peace plan as there are more than enough plans already; what is needed is political will.

Secondly, to spur a new approach to the resolution process, multilateralism will be required. The Biden administration presents an opportunity for the EU to assume a multilateral leadership role within Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. Any cooperative mechanisms developed between the US and the EU on the matter could drive forward more fruitful alternative solutions. Such cooperation could also change the US’s stance on the issue in the long run.

Last but not least, unification of the Palestinian leadership is essential. A joint Fatah-Hamas list could be an option. However, in practice, this still isn’t infeasible. Therefore, relevant actors should adopt common policies and stances towards specific issues such as recognition of Israel and Israeli annexation. Zaha Hassan argues that revitalizing the PLO should be a priority for Palestinian democracy. In this sense, the focus should be on how to create a more representative PLO, Palestinian institutions, and civil society.

Briefly, the closer the parties come to cultivating political will, multilateralism, and a unified Palestinian leadership, the higher the possibility that Israeli-Palestinian peace can flourish, with or without Biden.