The Biden Administration and the Palestinians: Early Policy Indications

The new administration in Washington, about half way through its first 100 days in office, is shaping its foreign policy. President Joe Biden and his team have started to make policy statements and have released a new interim national security strategy. If these early days are any indication of how US relations with the Palestinians will evolve, however, it looks like Washington will hew close to expectations for the Biden Administration.

Foreign Policy in the Biden Administration Thus Far

Assessing US-Palestinian relations thus far in the Biden Administration requires contextualizing the question in the broader formulation of US foreign policy by the White House. In this regard, the uniqueness of the moment is paramount. On the domestic front, the White House is primarily focused on the effort to roll out vaccinations to beat back the COVID-19 pandemic and to take legislative steps to support an economy that has been heavily impacted by it. This is undoubtedly priority number one, and while the White House can address foreign policy and domestic policy at the same time, the prioritization is very clear. When it comes to foreign policy, the administration has taken some easy, initial steps, such as reversing some executive actions from the previous administration that relate to foreign affairs. Additionally, the executive branch is filling positions, including those that must be confirmed by the Senate, but this process was delayed by the impeachment trial for former President Donald Trump as well as other legislative priorities. Slowly but steadily a team is falling into place. There have also been initial overtures to Iran in an effort to move toward a nuclear agreement and the window to do this might be quickly shrinking. Along with reassuring long-standing allies, primarily leading NATO countries, about American commitments, progress on the nuclear deal with Iran is at the top of the administration’s agenda.

Along with Iran diplomacy, the administration’s other steps relating to the region have included an announcement on a shift in policy toward the war on Yemen, which included a commitment to end offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia. Additionally, the administration began to deal with the recalibration of the US-Saudi relationship, particularly after the release of the long-awaited intelligence assessment placing responsibility for the murder of Washington Post journalist and Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi on Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

The administration’s other steps relating to the region have included an announcement on a shift in policy toward the war on Yemen, which included a commitment to end offensive weapons sales to Saudi Arabia.

Concurrent with these steps, the United States has put forward additional indications of the direction of its foreign policy. One of these was a lengthy speech by Secretary of State Antony Blinken titled “A Foreign Policy for the American People,” which stressed the need to “lead with diplomacy because it’s the best way to deal with today’s challenges.” The speech also focused on intersections of local and global challenges, from the pandemic to immigration to climate change and democratization.

The speech by Blinken coincided with the release of an interim national security strategy by the White House. This strategy emphasizes the dynamic, evolving, and global nature of threats that cannot be met with “borders or walls” but only with international cooperation. Further, it recognizes that the urgent need for that cooperation was coming at a time when global democracy was under extreme stress from nationalism and nativism and that international institutions and the rules-based order have been weakened.

Early Biden Administration Steps on Palestine

While it is still early, there have been numerous moments where the Biden Administration has had an opportunity to weigh in on matters relating to Palestine. In each situation, these positions suggest there is little reason to expect significant change from the decisions of the Trump Administration when it comes to America’s policy toward Israel/Palestine.

Jerusalem and the Golan Heights. On the issue of Jerusalem, the Trump Administration took significant steps to change US policy, recognizing the city as Israel’s capital and moving the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. In February, Secretary of State Blinken was asked about the Biden Administration’s position and he made it clear they would not be reversing the recognition of Jerusalem or the location of the embassy. Further, Blinken declined to support the idea of a Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. When it came to the question of the Golan Heights, he stated that “leaving aside the legalities of that question,” he did not see any reason to shift policy in the near future.

The United States has had multiple opportunities to make strong statements condemning Israeli settlement building but has declined to do so.

Settlements. The United States has had multiple opportunities to make strong statements condemning Israeli settlement building but has declined to do so. Most notably, in response to the news that the Jewish National Fund in Israel would be expanding its operations to aggressively repurpose land for settlement expansion in the West Bank, the State Department’s spokesperson could only muster a general admonition against unilateral steps by either side.

COVID-19 vaccines. Despite a growing outcry about Israel’s failure to provide vaccinations to the Palestinians in the territory it occupies, the United States made no public effort to press the Israelis to maintain their obligations under international law toward the well-being of the occupied population. As international attention on the inequalities in the Israeli vaccination program grew however, there were reports that the US secretary of state asked the Israeli foreign minister to help facilitate Palestinian access to the vaccine.

International Criminal Court. Perhaps the most significant interventions of the Biden Administration thus far on any issue relating to Palestine is its pronounced position toward the International Criminal Court (ICC). In recent weeks, the ICC has announced the findings of a tribunal that the court does have jurisdiction to initiate a war crimes investigation in occupied Palestinian territory. Shortly thereafter, the ICC prosecutor announced the opening of an investigation. In response to both of these announcements, Washington issued condemnations and statements opposing the ICC. Importantly, this moment follows the unprecedented attack on the ICC by the Trump Administration, which placed the court’s chief prosecutor on a sanctions list—normally intended for international criminals, terrorists, and drug traffickers—by executive order. Despite immediately reversing numerous Trump Administration executive orders, the Biden Administration has yet to reverse this one and it is unclear if and when it will.

UN Human Rights Council. The Biden Administration also announced a return to the United Nations Human Rights Council (UNHRC), from which the Trump Administration withdrew in 2018 citing alleged anti-Israel bias, among other things. The new administration’s return was not because it disagreed that the council had a “disproportionate focus on Israel” but rather because the withdrawal “did nothing to encourage meaningful change.” Thus, despite proclaiming, in the same statement, that the “Biden administration has recommitted the United States to a foreign policy centered on democracy, human rights, and equality,” it is clear that American engagement at the UNHRC will function to shield Israel from any accountability for its denial of Palestinian human rights.

It is clear that American engagement at the UNHRC will function to shield Israel from any accountability for its denial of Palestinian human rights.

Weaponizing Anti-Semitism. One last item of great consequence that indicates where the Biden Administration stands on Palestine policy thus far is the embrace of the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. This definition, which includes the notion that criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, is increasingly being weaponized as a tool to silence dissent on Israeli policy by smearing activists and limiting free speech. Such efforts were on the rise during the Trump Administration, and while Democrats opposed much Palestinian rights activism, they coalesced around defending the activists’ first amendment rights. This position ultimately made it into the Democratic Party’s national platform and early indications were that the administration would maintain the same line. The decision to embrace the IHRA definition, although it is unclear yet precisely how it will be instrumentalized by the Biden Administration, suggests a departure from even the minimalist definition of protecting the right to free speech of those with whom the administration does not agree.

The Palestine Exception

Thus far, Washington under the Biden Administration seems to be recalibrating policy toward Israel/Palestine in a direction that seems closer to the policies of the Trump rather than the Obama years. To wit, the White House continues to bring a pro-Israel bias in its relationship with international institutions like the Human Rights Council and the ICC; it is not making changes to the policy shifts of the Trump Administration on Jerusalem and the Golan Heights; and when it comes to Israeli obligations under international law, whether these are around the health of the Palestinian population or the expansion of settlements, the administration has thus far stuck to a largely muted tone.

The continuation of this approach is likely to create dissonance in American foreign policy and perhaps even generate dissent in the ranks of progressive supporters of the administration. Biden cannot simultaneously speak of the importance of strengthening the rules-based international order while supporting Israeli impunity for violations of international law. Further, the new administration should not extend that hypocritical approach to its engagement with international institutions. During the Trump Administration, this dissonance did not arise as the Trumpian foreign policy was articulated around a more cynical and nativist nationalism that was not interested in the liberal rules-based order. In such a framework, creating an exception for Israel and supporting it blindly, even as it violates international norms, became expected. The Biden Administration, however, is proclaiming an entirely different approach; and yet its actions, when it comes to Palestine policy, remain largely unchanged from those of its predecessor. That contrast is likely only to be heightened over time.

A Pause or a Trend?

So far, the Biden Administration’s policy on Israel/Palestine seems to be a function of some combination of laziness, confusion, and a general automatic response that has been sustained across administrations. Is it likely that this is how the current early stage will be characterized, or will it extend and become the new normal for the Biden Administration in the years to come?

So far, the Biden Administration’s policy on Israel/Palestine seems to be a function of some combination of laziness, confusion, and a general automatic response that has been sustained across administrations. 

To reinforce the argument that this is a short-term approach, it is worth remembering all the uncertainties at this time. Indeed, the administration remains focused elsewhere, domestically and internationally, and it is only now starting to have its full team assembled. In addition, major variables remain unknown regarding the future of the bilateral relationships with each party. Both Israelis and Palestinians are slated to have elections this year. It is possible the administration wants to stay largely distant from the issue, especially ahead of the Israeli elections. Neither party is prepared to credibly advance negotiations, which is still an aim of US policy in this area—as archaic as it sounds at this juncture. So what would be the point of weighing in heavily if the larger picture and the players might look different a few months down the line? Additionally, the question of what to do with Iran looms in the background. Given how connected that question is to relations with Israel, the administration may be calculating that it can only focus on one issue at a time before creating too much animosity among pro-Israel interest groups at home. Taken all together, all of these reasons argue for not doing much in the short term while leaving open the possibility of greater engagement in the medium term.

But what if the Biden Administration’s current conduct is the new normal? There are reasons to think that will be the case. The reality is that the Middle East simply is not as important to American interests as it was 30, 20, or even 10 years ago. Advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace, or even the façade of it, has always been useful for the United States as a foil as it pursued other objectives in the region. Whether it was during the first or second Gulf war or during the Obama Administration’s efforts to mend ties with the region, the peace process was always a tertiary objective—or a secondary one at best.

Today, the United States seems to seek a shift in focus away from the Middle East, where it has been mired in costly and counterproductive wars, and to turn its attention to different challenges, including those presented by China. While nuclear nonproliferation remains a top national security priority because of the grave risk that comes with nuclear weapons development, key goals in the region beyond an Iran nuclear deal are limited. The Palestinian issue is no longer simply a secondary or tertiary agenda item in US foreign policy in the region; it has fallen off the agenda entirely. Barring significant changes on the ground that would reverse this, or other changes in the region that would return its relevance to US policy makers, the current low level of engagement from Washington on this issue might be the new standard for years to come. The good news, if we can call it that, is that six months from now the picture should be clearer following the conclusion of the Israeli and Palestinian elections.