Biden’s Apparent Failure on Israel-Palestine

President Joe Biden’s 100-day milestone is approaching with pronounced successes in fighting the coronavirus pandemic, righting the ship of the American economy, and addressing social disparities. His administration appears to have also set an agenda to face up to the challenges of China, Russia, and climate change and to chart a way back to the nuclear deal with Iran. To be sure, judging by the pace of the president’s “America is back” mantra, what has transpired since his inauguration on January 20 is a string of impressive victories any administration would covet.

But the Biden Administration’s failure to devise a balanced approach to Palestinian-Israeli peace and to quickly respond to Israeli practices against Palestinians under occupation threatens its claim as a defender of rights and a decisive international player. Such a failure also portends ceding the fate of the Palestinians to the whims and fancies of Israel’s right-wing government and its extremist supporters. At the same time that it resumes badly needed financial assistance to the Palestinians, the administration has also let stand some serious illegal decisions by the Trump Administration that abrogate Palestinian civil and national rights and open the door to Israel’s appropriation and annexation of more Palestinian land. Even domestically, the administration has gone along with laws that restrict freedom of expression of activists, journalists, academics, and others exercising their right to criticize Israel. By doing so, the Biden Administration may very well become merely a cheerleader of Israel’s illegal actions and thus severely limit its position to influence developments in Palestinian-Israeli relations.

Positive Signals, but…

The Biden Administration has surely sent some encouraging signals that indicate it will not continue with Trump’s one-sided approach to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. President Biden spoke with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu a good four weeks after his inauguration on January 20, which appeared as a snub to the man with whom he had dealt as both a senator and a vice president. (It is noteworthy that Biden has not made a similar call to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.) If accurate, the snub to Netanyahu had many reasons, not least of which being the latter’s full embrace of former President Donald Trump and the American right. Other reasons included Israel’s insinuations of a coming annexation of more occupied Palestinian territory, increased settlement activity in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and the clear absence of talk of a two-state solution. Biden may also have been reluctant to call Netanyahu in the lead-up to Israel’s fourth parliamentary election in less than two years; nonetheless, delaying such communication with a country as dear as Israel to the United States raised many eyebrows.

The Biden Administration has shown signs of conscious distancing from the full-throated support Israel received from the Trump Administration.

Since then, the Biden Administration has shown more signs of conscious distancing from the full-throated support Israel received from the Trump Administration. In a briefing to the press, Department of State spokesperson Ned Price circuitously admitted that the United States still considers the West Bank as territory occupied by Israel; this was in clear contradiction to US policy under Trump, when former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo viewed Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank as not in violation of international law. The fact that Price was jumping through hoops to restate an old American policy was an indication that the Biden Administration is cognizant of the politics involved. The announcement was a welcome development that may augur at least a new approach regarding the feared annexation and continued settlement building.

The Biden Administration also provided some needed financial aid to the Palestinians, including $40 million in security assistance to Palestinian police forces, $75 million for infrastructure and social development, and $15 million to mitigate the devastating impact of the coronavirus pandemic. (So far, Israel has not provided the needed assistance to Palestinians under occupation to address COVID-19, as international conventions require.) Perhaps most consequential was the administration’s decision to provide $150 million in aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA), which the agency will use to fund schools for half a million children and health clinics for millions of refugees. This latter decision has both policy implications and political costs: the former because it means that the United States remains committed to resolving the Palestinian refugee crisis, and the latter because of the objections by Israel and its American supporters who believe that UNRWA is no longer needed because they do not agree that these millions of Palestinians should have refugee status.

…Previous Policies Stand

Returning to this traditional US policy—recommitting to financial assistance to the Palestinians—does not obscure serious deficits in the position of the United States regarding their rights vis-à-vis Israel. Indeed, the pronouncements on aid become mere humanitarian gestures if not coupled with significant and lasting changes to the policies enshrined during four years of Trump’s presidency. The Trump Administration encouraged the ascendance of extremist pro-Israel ideologues such as Pompeo, former ambassador to Israel David Friedman, and Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner who, with others, spurred dramatic changes in US policy toward Jerusalem, the occupied territories, and Palestinian rights.

Many examples of failures to reverse Trump Administration decisions stand out. The Biden Administration will let stand Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and to move the US embassy to the city. (It will not be hard to assume the same regarding the Israeli-occupied Syrian Golan Heights, which is considered a security issue for Israel.) Such a position does not only reverse long-standing American policy regarding the city, which is to remain a final status issue to be resolved with the Palestinians, but it will also deprive Washington of its ability to defend international law elsewhere. It will now be harder to justify President Biden’s strident rhetoric and sanctions against Russia’s illegal occupation of Ukrainian or Georgian territories if Israel is allowed to retain territory occupied by force. Furthermore, the administration has also delayed the opening of the American consulate in East Jerusalem, an entity that is dedicated to addressing the needs of the Palestinian population, as well as the reopening of the Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, DC. Both of these offices have served as venues where the United States appeared to consider the Palestinians as legitimate interlocutors on matters that concern their political and human rights.

The Biden Administration does not appear to be concerned about the creeping annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank and the increased buildup of settlements in and around Jerusalem.

Neither does the Biden Administration appear to be concerned about the creeping annexation of parts of the occupied West Bank and the increased buildup of settlements in and around Jerusalem. The administration has so far not commented on Israel’s recent plan to build 540 units beyond the Green Line between the Har Homa and Givat Hamatos settlements near Jerusalem, with another project to build housing for 2,000 families in Givat Hamatos itself. Such plans would threaten any idea—however remote, given conditions today—of East Jerusalem becoming the capital of a future Palestinian state. Furthermore, attacks by extremist settlers against Palestinians in their villages and homes across the West Bank have become routine and take place without interference from Israeli forces. It is hard not to infer that the aim of these attacks—the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem recorded 94 such incidents during the three months between December 2020 and March 2021—is to force Palestinians to flee so that settlers can appropriate as much land of the West Bank as possible.

Hardly any response has been recorded by the administration to Israel’s repeated demolition of Palestinian homes and villages. Rights groups registered the destruction of over 700 Palestinian buildings in 2020 alone, ostensibly for lacking building permits that are almost impossible to obtain. Just a few days ago, the Israeli army notified the citizens of an agricultural hamlet in the Jordan Valley—slated for annexation by Israel—that their homes will soon be demolished. In Jerusalem, a government-funded settler organization took over 15 Palestinian houses in Silwan district near the Aqsa Mosque and gave them to Jewish families. This seizure of Palestinian homes cannot be separated from the aggressive Jewish National Fund’s (JNF) systematic acquisition of Palestinian lands for the purpose of increased settlement of the West Bank. While the Department of State’s Ned Price issued a cautionary note on the JNF’s activities, nothing less than a public and concerted effort by the United States will be sufficient to stop Palestinian dispossession.

The Biden Administration has reversed Trump’s sanctions and visa restrictions against officials of the International Criminal Court, including its chief prosecutor Fatou Bensouda, who last February ruled that the court had jurisdiction to prosecute Israeli crimes against Palestinians. Secretary of State Antony Blinken directly criticized the court’s decision, however, contradicting its finding that Palestine has sovereignty to demand an investigation into Israel’s crimes, and declaring the United States’ commitment to the defense of Israel. That position dovetailed with the Israeli position. Recently, Israel publicly announced that it will not cooperate with ICC investigations into any of its policies or practices. In essence, not only is the United States acting outside the confines of the moral authority of international law by continuing to resist membership in the ICC; it is also acting as a defender of blatant violations of said law in the occupied territories and the Gaza Strip.

The Biden Administration has adopted the very restrictive International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, one that practically criminalizes any criticism of Israel.

Despite its emphasis on preserving the First Amendment’s free speech protections, the Biden Administration has adopted the very restrictive International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance’s (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, one that practically criminalizes any criticism of Israel. In a letter to the American Zionist Movement president, Secretary Blinken “enthusiastically embraced” the definition, “including its examples.” Free speech activists and organizations, including those who are Jewish, consider the definition a frontal attack on freedom of expression. The definition contains a provision against the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement, an international initiative that aims to peacefully impact how Israel’s actions are seen in the United States and worldwide. Undoubtedly, the adoption of the IHRA definition deprives the administration of the moral authority to criticize other governments for their violations of people’s freedoms, not to mention to push or force them to change course.

The administration continues to lecture about the virtues of democracy, democratic governance, and elections; however, this is belied by American silence over Israel’s attempts to thwart the upcoming Palestinian elections. Recently, Israeli police prevented an election meeting of candidates for the Palestine National Council that was supposed to be held in East Jerusalem. This specific act goes to the heart of American policy toward Israel and Palestine and must elicit a strong response from the Biden Administration. The reasons are that first, if the United States truly believes that what Israel took in the 1967 war is occupied territory, then Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem surely should be allowed to vote in Palestinian elections. The Biden Administration should unequivocally criticize the Israeli police’s actions against Palestinian electioneering. Second, if the United States stands by its traditional position that Jerusalem is a final status issue to be resolved in negotiations, then the Biden Administration should prevent Israel from exercising sovereignty over the city. By remaining silent on this action, the administration lets stand Israel’s claim of sovereignty over the entire city and thus obviates any pretense that the United States is a neutral arbiter between Israel and the Palestinians or that it respects the international law it exhorts other nations to heed.

What Should Be Expected from the Biden Administration?

A recent article in Politico stated flatly that President Biden’s interest in wading into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is practically nonexistent because of the complexity of the issue and the many domestic and foreign factors that might impact any potential approach to tackle it. But the reality is that by not getting too involved in the nitty-gritty of the situation, the administration makes two serious and consequential admissions. The first is an acknowledgement that the headlong Trump approach to give Israel everything it wanted has indeed carried the day and created a totally skewed landscape in Israel’s favor. The second is a confirmation that the United States has no influence on Israel whatsoever, despite its enormous annual financial support and the diplomatic and political protection it provides to Israel in international fora when Palestinian rights are debated.

Much water has flowed under the bridge of American involvement as the United States halfheartedly tried for decades to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But the failure to equitably and justly address the problem has essentially resulted from interrelated factors: Israeli intransigence, which has seemingly become insurmountable, American partiality to Israel, and Israel’s view of what constitutes its security. Indeed, and despite its humanitarian gestures toward the Palestinians, the United States has lost whatever moral high ground it may have pretended to have when mediating Palestinian-Israeli peace. If the Biden Administration does not quickly remedy the striking deficits of balance in its approach toward the Palestinians and the Israelis, it might as well abandon the charade that it cares about the protection and advancement of the rights of the oppressed all around the world.

Imad K. Harb is the Director of Research and Analysis at Arab Center Washington DC. To learn more about Imad and read his previous publications click here

Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons/L-BBE