The election of Joe Biden has generated optimism that the United States will again meaningfully interfere in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. President-elect Biden will no doubt approach the conflict in a fairer and more multilateral manner than his predecessor, but his term in office is unlikely to usher in any significant change in US policy. As Israel’s longtime ally, having served more than forty years as a Democratic Senator and Vice President, his views on the conflict mirror those of his party’s mainstream. We can therefore expect Biden’s approach to Israel and Palestine to be a return to the status quo upheld by previous democratic presidents.
President Donald Trump has pursued a resolutely pro-Israel agenda that includes recognizing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, moving the US embassy to Jerusalem and dismantling diplomatic ties with the Palestinians through the closure of the US consulate general in East Jerusalem and Palestine. Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, DC. This policy has weakened the Palestinian position and almost destroyed the US’s credibility as a mediator for the two parties.
Biden is unlikely to provide Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Israeli law with the same unreserved support that they enjoyed under Trump. However, there will be clear continuity between administrations on some key issues. Biden criticized Trump’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, but stated that he would not bring it back to Tel Aviv. Like Trump, Biden is a staunch supporter of the US guarantee of security for Israel and does not support the use of US aid to moderate Israeli settlement activities. He is also strongly against the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement. His foreign minister candidate, Antony Blinken, insisted that the Biden government stand up against the movement and seek to denounce Israel at the United Nations.
However, there will be notable changes in Biden’s policies. He plans to reconnect with the Palestinians by reopening the US Consulate in East Jerusalem and the PLO Mission in Washington, DC. He is also committed to restoring the aid that supports “Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, economic development and humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip” (Biden, n. D.). However, that aid depends on the Palestinian Authority suspending payments to the families of Palestinian prisoners and accusing Palestinian attackers killed by the Israeli military and Israeli security. The president-elect has also announced that he will return to the US’s longstanding position to oppose unilateral annexation of territories and settlement activities that could undermine prospects for a two-state solution. From a Palestinian perspective, this will be a welcome departure from the Trump administration’s legitimization of these activities, but in practice it will likely be little more than a rhetorical shift.
With a number of pressing domestic and foreign policy issues, from the COVID-19 pandemic to the rise of China vying for its attention, the Israel-Palestine conflict is unlikely to have a prominent role on Biden’s foreign policy agenda in its early years in office plays. Unlike many previous elected presidents, he has not announced any initiatives to deal with the conflict. Blinken noted that the two parties are unwilling to negotiate and predicted that the administration will initially adopt a “do no harm” approach. Although this cautious policy will do little to solve the endemic security and humanitarian problems of the region, it will at least rebalance the American position, a prerequisite for the US to act as a mediator of the conflict in the future.
The return to decoupled stability is a modest but important improvement in the prospect of peace. With the recent collapse of Netanyahu’s government, Israel will have its fourth election in two years in March. While political law is likely to remain dominant, Netanyahu’s position is questionable. If he does not keep power, perhaps a new Israeli and American leadership would offer an opportunity to consider returning to negotiations in the future. Under the terms of Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, there was little hope of significant progress in the peace process.
In place of the Israel-Palestine conflict, Biden wants his Middle East agenda to focus on reviving the Iranian nuclear deal and continuing to wind up US military commitments in the region. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA) was an outstanding achievement by the Obama-Biden administration, and the president-elect has pledged to rejoin the deal if Iran returns to compliance. However, returning to the deal could prove almost as difficult as negotiating for the first time. America’s regional allies, including Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE), are against the deal. The fear of Iran’s growing regional influence under the terms of the JCPOA helped convince the UAE to sign a peace agreement with Israel.
The current pragmatic Iranian regime, led by President Hassan Rouhani and Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, has signaled that it is open to re-accession if the US lifts sanctions, but Rouhani faces an election in June. Hardliners won the general election in February 2020 by a comfortable margin, and there are calls for redress for US sanctions. Eventually, Biden faces significant domestic opposition to the deal with both parties wanting more robust security guarantees included in the deal. The combination of these factors will mean that the nuclear deal will take up a significant part of Biden’s initial Middle East policy, leaving little political capital for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
While Biden will spend much of his first few months in office reversing Trump-era policies, from the resumption of the Paris Agreement and the World Health Organization to reintegration into European allies, the politics between Israel and Palestine is an area of change likely to be measured more strongly. Biden’s tenure will not foster the political change needed to advance the peace process or change Palestinian fortunes, but after four years of neglect by the Trump administration, this will nonetheless be a welcome respite for the Palestinians and potentially provide the equanimity to that the region needs to avoid conflicts.
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