Opinion |

Biden’s Biggest Priority on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Isn’t a Peace Plan

Trump brought U.S. foreign policy into dangerous alignment with the expansionist Israeli right. Biden has to rebuild American leverage – starting with reconstructing Washington’s relationship with the Palestinians

Susie Gelman
Susie Gelman
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President-elect Joe Biden's 'most immediate priorities on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are reconstructing what the Trump administration has torn asunder'
President-elect Joe Biden's 'most immediate priorities on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are reconstructing what the Trump administration has torn asunder'Credit: ANGELA WEISS - AFP
Susie Gelman
Susie Gelman

Previous American presidents have entered office with ambitious plans for peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians. President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be working from a different baseline. 

Donald Trump’s four years in office saw the implementation of harmful policies that upended longstanding American positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, causing Washington’s relationship with the Palestinians to break down completely and bringing U.S. foreign policy into dangerous alignment with the expansionist vision of the Israeli right. 

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After Inauguration Day, the Biden administration will need to repair the damage wrought by its predecessor.

Broadly speaking, President-elect Biden will need to reset American policies with three objectives in mind: dialing back tensions between Israelis and Palestinians, restoring the U.S.-Palestinian relationship, and reinforcing clear tenets undergirding a future peace agreement, even if the new administration does not prioritize actually pursuing one.

Israeli-Palestinian relations reached their nadir over the summer after the release of the Trump plan, which endorsed West Bank annexation. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas then finally followed through on an oft-repeated threat to suspend security cooperation with Israel, making policing and counter-terrorism efforts in the West Bank more difficult. The Palestinians also ceased accepting tax revenue transfers from Israel, leaving the PA on a precarious financial footing.

U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 23, 2017.
U.S. President Donald Trump and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, May 23, 2017.Credit: Evan Vucci/AP

Reports abound of Palestinian security personnel donning civilian clothes to buy fuel for their vehicles in areas where Israel does not normally permit PA forces or leaving their uniforms at their offices for fear of reprisals from relatives and neighbors. Thousands of Palestinian civil servants are enduring significant salary cuts. 

This situation raises the potential for uncontrolled escalation between the two sides, with little hope for deconfliction. The Biden administration will need to provide the Palestinians a dignified way of walking back from this cliff.

Restoring diplomatic relations with the Palestinian leadership and restarting aid to the Palestinian people can offer just that pretext for President Abbas. 

The United States could reopen its consulate in East Jerusalem, previously dedicated to overseeing relations with the Palestinians, which was merged into the United States Embassy in Israel under the Trump administration. This move would represent an easy first step toward treating the Palestinians as an equal party in the eyes of the United States rather than as an appendage of Israel. 

The sign for the Office of the Palestinian Diplomatic Mission is taken down marking the office's closure in Washington, DC, on October 10, 2018
The sign for the Office of the Palestinian Diplomatic Mission is taken down marking the office's closure in Washington, DC. October 10, 2018Credit: AFP

Other options, such as inviting the PLO to reopen its mission in Washington, are presently blocked by the 2019 Promoting Security and Justice for Victims of Terrorism Act, but should be kept in mind as the new administration works with Congress. The Biden administration could also resume support for the Palestinian Authority’s security and intelligence forces, which, unlike some other forms of aid in the West Bank and Gaza, is not impacted by the Taylor Force Act

Each of these proposals would give the Palestinian leadership a path to claim a victory, however small, in its relationship with the United States, which in turn might provide the political capital necessary to rebuild its relationship with Israel.

But it’s not just the leadership in Ramallah that will need help: the Palestinian people have also suffered greatly under the Trump administration, which cut all aid to the West Bank and Gaza, including humanitarian assistance completely unrelated to the activities of the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. 

Like many developing societies, the Palestinians receive American aid, and the outgoing administration’s actions were not only cruel and punitive but deprived the United States of important leverage with the PA. The cuts even extended to entities explicitly excluded from the Taylor Force Act, such as hospitals in East Jerusalem which are outside of the PA’s jurisdiction. 

The Palestinians’ unwillingness to engage with the Trump administration, notwithstanding the cuts in aid, indicates that efforts to pressure the Palestinians only harmed ordinary people and were completely ineffectual in advancing the Trump administration’s political objectives.

The Partnership Fund for Peace Act, recently enacted with bipartisan support, restores about $50 million in assistance in the area of people-to-people exchanges. While important, this represents only a fraction of the funding cut by the Trump administration, which impacted every facet of aid previously provided to the Palestinians, including all support for USAID in the West Bank and Gaza as well as support for UNRWA. 

Members of a Palestinian family stand through the door of their home as they receive food aid provided by UNRWA in Gaza City on September 15, 2020
Members of a Palestinian family stand through the door of their home as they receive food aid provided by UNRWA in Gaza City on September 15, 2020Credit: MOHAMMED ABED - AFP

The Biden administration should seek to restore the humanitarian aid which was slashed on the outgoing president’s watch.

Then there is the issue of revisiting the political vision behind U.S. policy toward Israel and the Palestinians. Although a comprehensive peace deal seems more elusive than ever, the Biden administration could establish basic parameters for an eventual agreement that would generally conform to the principles set forth by Presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama. 

Even if no serious direct Israeli-Palestinian negotiations take place in the next four years, such steps could go a long way towards signaling to Israel and the Palestinians that the Trump administration’s support for annexation under the Peace to Prosperity proposal is no longer U.S. policy.

In spite of his generally poor record, President Trump did produce one significant foreign policy achievement: supporting normalization between Israel and other Arab states. President-elect Joe Biden has already expressed his support for these advances, and he will likely seek to build upon his predecessor’s progress when he enters office. 

That being said, the manner in which President Biden will pursue these efforts may necessitate some adjustments. President Trump rewarded Arab states for opening up to Israel with benefits such as the pending sale of advanced F-35 stealth fighter jets to the UAE. This transactional approach has sparked fears of an arms race in the Middle East, and was only begrudgingly and belatedly accepted by Israeli officials after weeks of mixed signals from Jerusalem. 

The Biden administration may seek to reassess what the Trump White House put on the table for normalization and ensure that future incentives for additional normalization agreements do not compromise regional stability or American and Israeli security interests.

The Biden administration’s most immediate priorities on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will primarily amount to reconstructing what the Trump administration has torn asunder. Given the scope of the damage inflicted over the past four years, the task of rebuilding will be just as important as any far-reaching peace proposal.

Susie Gelman is Board Chair of Israel Policy Forum, the U.S. organization founded in 1993 that supports a viable two-state solution consistent with Israel’s security

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