The holes in Biden's Palestine policy tell a familiar story

The holes in Biden's Palestine policy tell a familiar story
Comment: Biden's initial moves in the Israel/Palestine arena suggest a move back to Obama-era policies, while leaving Trump's damage unaddressed, writes Mitchell Plitnick.
6 min read
30 Jan, 2021
Biden has no intention of moving the US embassy out of Jerusalem [Getty]
Examining the first two weeks of the Joe Biden era, one might feel a familiarity that is at once comforting after four years of Donald Trump, yet also alarming in its echoes of failed policies of the past.

The Biden administration is promising to renew diplomacy with the Palestinians, to restore funding to UNRWA (the United Nations agency that provides services to Palestinian refugees in the region), to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization's offices in Washington, and to base its policies on consultations "with both sides." And on Monday, the Palestinian Authority announced it had initiated contact with the new US administration, ending its boycott of Trump's Washington. 

Meanwhile, other members of Congress criticised the Israeli government for shirking its responsibility under international law to provide Covid-19 vaccines to the people living under its occupation. Texas Congressman Joaquin Castro said, "I'm disappointed and concerned by [Israel's] exclusion of Palestinians living under Israeli occupation from these vaccination efforts, despite making Covid vaccines available to Israeli settlers in the West Bank."

That sentiment was echoed by several other Democrats, including Senator and former vice-presidential candidate Tim Kaine of Virginia. So it might seem like a new day is dawning for American policy in Israel and Palestine.

Not quite.

We are certainly witnessing a shift from the policies of Donald Trump and Mike Pompeo, which were steered by supporters of radical West Bank settlement movements, both Christian and Jewish. But Biden's initial moves are comparatively minor, and, at best, promise a move back to the policies that had been pursued by Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton before them.

We hear the same words that became so familiar over decades of both Republican and Democratic failures

One of the few things you can find a great deal of agreement on among supporters of both the Israeli and Palestinian positions, is that those policies failed to lead to a resolution of a situation where Israel holds millions of Palestinians under its control with no rights, and the attendant fears, insecurity, and violence that situation brings.

Yet when we listen to Biden's newly-confirmed Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, we hear the same words that became so familiar over decades of both Republican and Democratic failures: "In the first instance, what would be important is to make sure that neither party takes steps that make the already difficult proposition even more challenging... and then hopefully, to start working to slowly build some confidence on both sides to create an environment in which we might once again be able to help advance a solution."

Those words echo almost precisely the sentiments of virtually every president, secretary of state, Mideast envoy, and ambassador to Israel since the Oslo Accords were signed in 1993. They could have been uttered any time in the past quarter century.

Blinken's statement, combined with the commitments Biden has made to rebuild the embalmed peace process, which are aimed at undoing some of the most petty and spiteful steps taken by the Trump administration, amounts to very little. It is also telling what Biden is not committing to do.

For example, Biden has made it clear that he has no intention of moving the United States embassy out of Jerusalem. This would probably be the single most meaningful thing he could do to win Palestinian confidence, but it is a political impossibility. No one ever seriously thought the embassy move could be reversed, given that it was the fulfillment of a law Congress passed in 1995 with strong bipartisan support.

Read more: Palestinian Authority, Biden administration make first contact

Another dramatic Trump decision that Biden will not be reversing, is his recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights. This, too, is something that no one expected Biden would reverse, as it would mean angering Israel to placate Syria and its leader, Bashar al-Assad. But, unlike the embassy move, the Golan decision carries weighty implications.

Recognising Israeli sovereignty over the Golan meant that the United States recognised the acquisition of territory by force, a direct violation of the United Nations charter.

Moreover, it meant that the United States had abandoned the principle of deciding the fate of the territories Israel captured in the 1967 war by negotiation, as had been done with the one territory Israel relinquished control of, the Sinai Peninsula, which was returned to Egypt as part of the peace agreement between the two countries. That agreement established the "land for peace" principle which the Israeli right has been fighting to reverse ever since.

Trump's recognition of the Golan set a precedent that Israel and its advocates will certainly argue should be applied equally to the West Bank, which was an integral part of Mandatory Palestine and holds enormous national and religious significance for Jews. Neither of those things is true about the Golan. Moreover, the West Bank itself had previously been occupied by Jordan, whereas no one disputed that the Golan Heights was part of Syrian sovereign territory before 1967.

Read more: Palestinians replant trees after Israel uproots thousands

As a result, Trump's recognition of Israeli sovereignty on the Golan Heights is eventually going to be a potent tool in making the argument for a future US government to recognise Israel's claim to the West Bank. Despite this danger, Biden has not mentioned the Golan, and the grave political consequences if he did so indicate that he will not act to reverse Trump's decision there.

While these are gloomy signs, the fact that some Democrats have been vocal about Israel's reluctance to fulfill its obligation to vaccinate Palestinians under its control in the West Bank and Gaza Strip is encouraging. That this criticism has come despite Israel and its defenders in the United States claiming angrily that these accusations are "lies", and that Israel does not have the responsibilities that it certainly does in the face of a novel pandemic, makes it even more significant.

Their resolve on this issue is going to be tested. When Palestinian-American Congresswoman Rashida Tlaib called Israel a "racist state" for not vaccinating Palestinians in the West Bank, she was immediately set upon by Israel's defenders. Ironically, a leading Israeli human rights group, B'Tselem, had labeled Israel an apartheid state only days before.

These conditions are what doomed negotiations before and are sure to do so again

Pro-Israel advocates in the Democratic party are increasing their activity, as we saw last week when the AIPAC-aligned Democratic Majority for Israel attacked Rep. Ilhan Omar over her defense of the BDS movement against attacks by New York City mayoral candidate, Andrew Yang.

It will be an uphill battle for progressive Democrats in their effort to promote an even-handed US policy toward the Palestinians. With Israeli elections coming in March and Palestinian elections planned for May and July, and given the current stalemate between the two sides, the Biden administration is certain to want to avoid spending much time and political capital on this issue, beyond trying to stabilize it and reverse some of the damage Trump did.

During that period, Israel advocates will be entrenching a position of resisting any major changes to long-held US policy backing a two-state solution, regardless of whether that is feasible or not, as well as principles like the US being the only mediator, and resistance to any pressure on Israel to change its policies and hardline stances.

These conditions are what doomed negotiations before and are sure to do so again. Given the long list of concerns facing American politicians, progressives being willing to stay in this fight seems like a lot to hope for. 

Mitchell Plitnick is a political analyst and writer. He is the former vice president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace and former director of the US Office of B'Tselem.

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.