Middle East Eye / April 29, 2021
The administration appears to be returning to the pre-Trump US approach to the conflict, which includes rhetorical backing for a two-state solution.
For four years, former US President Donald Trump rocked US policy towards the Middle East with a string of staunchly anti-Palestinian moves.
In America and across the world, Trump’s critics were counting the minutes for Joe Biden to take office and reverse some of Washington’s more damaging international policies.
The new US administration, which is approaching 100 days in office, appears to be returning to the pre-Trump US approach to Israel-Palestine: rhetorical backing for the two-state solution, humanitarian aid to Palestinians, and maintaining unconditional military and diplomatic support for Israel.
But the conditions fostered by Washington over successive administrations have led to the systemic subjugation of Palestinians that human rights groups – including Human Rights Watch – say amount to apartheid.
“The approach so far has been the classic US approach: conflict management rather than conflict resolution,” said Khalil Jahshan, executive director of the Arab Center Washington DC.
“It has not contributed anything out of the ordinary. The steps taken toward the Palestinians, as positive as they might be from a Palestinian perspective in terms of restoring the aid, are symbolic and limited in impact.”
Not only is the new US administration following traditional policy patterns to tackle the decades-old crisis, but it appears that altering the status quo is not high on its list of priorities.
With an ambitious domestic agenda beset by political bickering and looming global competition with China, Biden has done little to demonstrate interest in finding a resolution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
No special envoy; no international conferences; and no high-level contacts with Palestinian officials – at least not publicly.
It took Biden nearly a month to call Israel’s prime minister – something his predecessors have done in their first week in office. The extensive calls and meetings between senior American and Israeli officials appear to be geared towards keeping Israelis in the loop about nuclear talks with Iran – not the Palestinians.
A five-paragraph White House statement describing a meeting between US National security adviser Jake Sullivan and his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat on Wednesday did not mention Palestinians until the fourth paragraph.
“US officials affirmed this administration’s continued support for efforts to advance peace between Israelis and Palestinians and a two-state solution to the conflict,” it said.
The bulk of the statement focused on Iran and Israeli-American bilateral relations.
“The administration does not think of resolving the issue of Palestine as a priority at all,” said Omar Baddar, a Palestinian-American analyst.
“I think that the primary issue here is that there’s a perception that the domestic political costs of trying to resolve the issue of Palestine are too high.”
Baddar told Middle east Eye that pressuring Israel “towards an end to apartheid” would rile up all Republicans and half of the Democrats in Congress.
Zaha Hassan, a human rights lawyer and visiting fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, added that the administration, preoccupied with immediate issues at home and abroad, lacks the “bandwidth” to tackle the crisis.
“There isn’t a lot of bandwidth in this administration for the level of engagement that we’ve seen in the past on Israel-Palestine peace-making,” Hassan told MEE.
“We are still in the midst of a pandemic. And we still have economic recovery to think about domestically… And Iran is a priority in terms of getting the JCPOA [nuclear deal] back online, and then we have real competition with China.”
‘US is funding oppression’
As a candidate, Biden ran on a traditional pro-Israel platform, dismissing calls to condition aid to Israel as “bizarre“. But he promised to restore US assistance to Palestinians, return the Palestinian diplomatic mission to Washington and open an American consulate for Palestinians in East Jerusalem.
He also ruled out returning the US embassy to Tel Aviv and condemned the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement while respecting the right to free speech.
US policies in the first 100 days of Biden’s presidency have reflected some of his electoral promises.
Baddar said reinstating the aid, especially to UNRWA, makes a “meaningful” difference in refugees’ lives, but it cannot solve the conflict.
“At the end of the day, Palestinians are not victims of a natural disaster. They’re not a humanitarian case of charity,” Baddar told MEE.
“They are an oppressed people who are in need to be freed from the oppression that they live under, and the US is funding that oppression with billions of dollars.”
For her part, Hassan said the administration has “worked really hard” to restore the aid despite political pushback, working around US laws like the Taylor Force Act that prohibit direct assistance to the Palestinian Authority.
“They’ve kept their promise in that regard,” she said. “But there’s also a lot of concern around the administration in terms of what they have yet to do and what they haven’t prioritised.”
For example, Hassan added, the administration has not taken a position on allowing Palestinians in Jerusalem to participate in the upcoming Palestinian elections – an issue that could lead to postponing or cancelling the vote.
Israel has failed to answer Palestinian demands for allowing Palestinian residents of the holy city to vote.
“That was a missed opportunity, in my view, for the administration to make clear that while they haven’t moved back the embassy to Tel Aviv, they still consider East Jerusalem to be central to their preferred political outcome – which is a two-state solution,” Hassan said.
Despite reluctance to criticise Israel, the administration has stressed that it backs equality between Israelis and Palestinians, echoing a statement by the Biden campaign.
A readout of a call between Secretary of State Antony Blinken and his Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi early in April said: “The Secretary emphasized the Administration’s belief that Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy.”
Jahshan, of the Arab Center, said that while the statement is welcome, without a complete rethinking of Washington’s position on the conflict, it is of little meaning.
“As much as I appreciate the nuance of the statement, practically speaking, I can’t take this to the bank,” he told MEE.
Jahshan said Washington has become a “partner” in the occupation and oppression of Palestinians over the past decades.
He called for revising the “old rules” of US engagement in the region, including unconditional support for Israel.
“If the administration wants to restore US credibility, wants to go back and play the role of a peacemaker, it has to shift the paradigm,” Jahshan said.
Domestically, Biden is defying the old norms of perceived limits on the government’s role. His coronavirus relief package was a whopping $1.9 trillion. He has also proposed a $2-trillion infrastructure plan that would reshape the American economy.
That transformative thinking is yet to manifest itself in foreign policy, however.
“When it comes to Israel-Palestine in particular, Biden’s policy seems to be primarily about restoring that pre-Trump ‘normal’, which was a deeply problematic policy to begin with,” Baddar said.
Traditional US policy on the conflict suffered from a “fundamental contradiction”, Baddar added. “The US policy positions were always opposed to Israel’s crimes, but then the US policy in action was supportive of Israel’s crimes through unconditional military aid and additional diplomatic protection at the United Nations.”
Biden drew the ire of Palestinian rights activists in March when the administration forcefully rejected an investigation by the International Criminal Court (ICC) into alleged war crimes in the Palestinian territories.
Still, the administration has removed Trump-era sanctions against ICC officials. Baddar said the episode highlights the contradiction in US posture.
“They are ensuring that even though we’re not taking extreme measures to declare to the world our opposition to the concept of international justice and human rights, we still don’t go as far as to actually embrace meaningful investigation into Israel’s actions,” he said.
Biden re-joined the UN Human Rights Council, which the previous administration had quit over what it called “chronic bias against Israel”. But his top aides have pledged to continue the US policy of shielding Israel from criticism at the United Nations.
Hassan, the human rights lawyer, noted that the word “values” appears 25 times in a relatively short document outlining the administration’s national security strategy.
“It’s going to become increasingly glaring and painful for this administration to create an exception for its approach to Israel-Palestine while it’s trying to restore American global leadership around multilateralism and rules-based international order,” she said.
Ali Harb is a writer based in Washington, DC; he reports on US foreign policy, Arab-American issues, civil rights and politics