Will This Be Biden’s Tragic Legacy on Israel-Palestine?

President Biden has an opportunity to demand much more of Israel than his predecessors. Instead, and alarmingly, he has chosen the path of least resistance

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U.S President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House last August.
U.S President Joe Biden meets with Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett at the White House last August.Credit: EyePress News / EyePress via AFP
Hadar Susskind
Hadar Susskind

Even before Joe Biden was sworn in as president, his foreign policy team busily engaged with Washington’s Israel-Palestine policy community to lower expectations. Don’t expect us to broker peace negotiations was the message, but do help us shape a strategy to keep the path open for a future two-state Israeli-Palestinian peace accord.

Talks about such a strategy took place between Biden administration officials and various stakeholders both in Washington and in the region. Allies advised. Think tanks and advocacy groups generated reports, and papers were pushed on the desks of relevant State Department officials.

But instead of taking measures to bolster a future peace agreement, the Biden administration withdrew into a comfort zone of benign neglect on Israel-Palestine, allowing destructive developments that none of its predecessors had permitted – except Donald Trump, of course.

Sure, Biden’s Middle East team reversed some of the Trump administration’s disastrous anti-Palestinian practices and dusted off traditional U.S. positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But when it came to real action that would help keep the two-state solution viable, the Biden administration has done alarmingly little during its first year in office.

Biden administration officials seldom speak publicly about their Israel-Palestine policy. A revealing and jarring exception was a September 17 address to the Arab Center Washington DC by Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Joey Hood. The official spoke dismissively about going back to "peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians that did not lead anywhere."

He explained: "The typical approach for the past 20-something years has been, ‘Let’s go for a Nobel Peace Prize, let’s try to get everything solved,' and it just hasn’t worked. So what this administration is trying to do is to see, can we just make lives better for people? Can we just stop the dying and then make lives better for people, whether they’re Israeli or Palestinian?"

Palestinian laborers build new houses in the West Bank settlement of Bruchin near the Palestinian town of Nablus, in October.Credit: Ariel Schalit,AP

Yes, these words (just "make lives better for people") came from the Biden administration, not the one that preceded it. Hood went on to talk about the current government in Israel as a chief reason for the administration’s handling the Israel-Palestine issue "slowly but surely."

Slowly but surely, the government of Israel is allowing construction in locations that could mean a death blow to future efforts to establish an independent, contiguous Palestinian state. Namely, the narrow corridors that connect East Jerusalem to its West Bank environs on the east, south and north.

Privately, administration officials have been telling stakeholders in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts that the Biden White House is resisting putting pressure on the Israeli government regarding settlement construction because it doesn’t want to cause the collapse of the current coalition and Benjamin Netanyahu’s return to power.

Is this concern valid? Is this government so volatile that it cannot withstand U.S. pressure? The answer, counterintuitively perhaps, is absolutely not.

Due to relatively new so-called "governability laws" – ironically passed by Netanyahu – toppling a government coalition in Israel is no easy matter. Today, a simple no confidence motion in the Knesset is not enough. The opposition needs to come up with an alternative 61-member coalition. The chances of this happening are slim to none.

Second, there is no interest for any of the current coalition members, especially the right-wing coalition parties, to go to new elections. Polls show that both Prime Minister Naftali Bennett’s party and Gideon Saar’s party would crash if elections were to be held now.

Third, Israeli governments seldom fall due to ideological, policy reasons. Typically, the cause is petty politics. Disagreements on settlement policy are not likely to cause the demise of this unusual right-left government.

Israeli politicians are used to U.S. pressure regarding settlements. And in the past, they respected U.S. demands to avoid building in ultra-sensitive spots that would deny contiguity to a future Palestinian state. The Biden administration has an opportunity to demand much more than past administrations have. Instead, it has chosen the path of least resistance and benign neglect.

My organization’s mission is peace now. And while I realize that right now a negotiated peace agreement is not in the offing, I know that inaction in the face of occupation and settlement expansion will make Israeli-Palestinian peace unattainable for generations to come.

How tragic it would be if that became the Biden administration’s Middle East policy legacy.       

Hadar Susskind is the President and CEO of Americans for Peace Now. Twitter: @HadarSusskind