Biden faces an uphill battle for Palestine, and it starts in East Jerusalem

Then US vice president Joe Biden shakes hands with Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas in Ramallah (AFP)

Hussein Ibish

The National  /  January 25, 2021

A couple of jarring moments in the first days of his presidency demonstrate how challenging it will be for Joe Biden to repair US policy towards the Palestinians.

The first was a seemingly minor, but in fact highly instructive, kerfuffle over the language identifying the Twitter feed for the US ambassador to Israel. Shortly after Mr Biden was inaugurated, the account’s description was changed to say that the ambassador represents Washington in “Israel, the West Bank and Gaza” rather than simply Israel.

That’s obviously true. But it contradicts persistent efforts by the previous administration to reverse decades of US policy that recognised the distinction between Israel and the Palestinian territories occupied in 1967. Under Donald Trump, the State Department gradually eliminated almost all references to occupation, occupied territories and even, at times, “the West Bank and Gaza Strip” as entities distinct from Israel.

This idea was most prominently expressed in the so-called “Peace to Prosperity” plan issued in January 2020 that encouraged Israel to annex huge chunks of the occupied West Bank and would have effectively eliminated the potential for a Palestinian state. But it was also reflected in language in numerous State Department documents, including US passports, that appear to recognise Israel’s de facto sovereignty in occupied East Jerusalem and other parts of the West Bank.

The bottom line is that the Trump administration was opposed to a genuine, viable two-state solution whereas the Biden administration will seek to return to the US what had been a bipartisan consensus in favour of such an outcome. In that quest, they will enjoy the support of most professional diplomats at the State Department, who were deeply concerned by the Trump administration’s abandonment of both international law and the terms of the 1993 Declaration of Principles, which was signed by the US and Israel and forbids unilateral annexation.

So, it’s not surprising that somebody at the State Department moved immediately to correct the language on Twitter to reflect these understandings. However, conservative media and right-wing politicians such as Michael McCaul, the senior Republican on the House foreign affairs committee, howled in outrage.

The language was quickly restored to read simply “Israel” and the State Department insisted that it was all an inadvertent error and reflected no change in policy now or any planned one in the future.

That may be perfectly true. Someone certainly jumped the gun.

Yet while the language change was hasty, and clumsy in many ways, it nonetheless does reflect the kind of policy change towards the Palestinians the Biden administration could pursue, and the level of opposition that would face.

But the fact that such a simple, basic and, in a rational world, plainly unobjectionable phrase as “Israel, the West Bank and Gaza” could cause an uproar, and have to be withdrawn for reintroduction at some propitious future date, indicates how challenging it will be for the Biden administration to restore something as previously straightforward as the US commitment to a two-state solution.

That conundrum was further illustrated in the confirmation hearings for Secretary of State nominee Antony Blinken. He repeated the Biden administration’s commitment to a two-state outcome, but when asked if the US would maintain its embassy in Jerusalem and its current policies towards Jerusalem, Mr Blinken answered quickly and simply: “Yes and yes.”

Nobody expected Mr Biden to remove the US Embassy from Jerusalem. But Mr Trump’s recognition of Israel’s sovereignty in Jerusalem seems, particularly to Israel, to involve both West Jerusalem and occupied East Jerusalem. If that really is US policy, which was never made explicitly clear, and the Biden administration maintains it, then their purported commitment to a two-state solution isn’t serious.

A compromise on occupied East Jerusalem, and particularly the Muslim and Christian holy places in what is known as the “holy basin”, is an indispensable part of any viable two-state outcome. Israel’s position that all of Jerusalem is its “eternal and undivided capital” leaves little room for any such understanding.

Fortunately, there is a way out for Mr Biden on this, and, ironically, it was provided by Mr Trump himself. In his December 6, 2017 proclamation on Jerusalem, Mr Trump specifically stated that “the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty in Jerusalem are subject to final-status negotiations”.

This phrase was never further explained, but it hangs over the proclamation as a crucial caveat. What Mr Biden needs to do, sooner rather than later, is to explain that this can only mean, and that US policy is, that Washington recognises Israel’s sovereignty in West Jerusalem but continues to view occupied East Jerusalem as a core final-status issue to be resolved only through negotiations as the 1993 Declaration of Principles stipulates.

It is not a difficult case to make, if you begin the conversation by asking what the “specific boundaries” passage was intended to signify and why it was included. In April 2017, Russia recognised West Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and added that it looked forward to recognising the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem. That declaration angered no one.

Right-wing Israelis, greater-Israel advocates, evangelical fundamentalist Christians and diehard supporters of Mr Trump may feign outrage. But it’s a necessary step if Mr Biden is interested in re-establishing the US position as one compatible with a viable peace.

The irony is that while Mr Biden is going to struggle mightily to restore this stance, it is hardly a major step forward. The two-state solution was moribund even before Mr Trump’s plan attempted to permanently bury it. Even if Mr Biden manages to exhume a pro-peace US policy, the two-state solution isn’t likely to emerge greatly reinvigorated.

Crucially, Israel is now moving at top speed to finalise a major new settlement cutting occupied East Jerusalem off from the West Bank. Mr Biden must take a strong stance against the Givat Hamatos project, which would achieve practically what Mr Trump’s rhetoric implied: that any Israeli compromise on Jerusalem is permanently off the table.

If that settlement is built, no amount of impeccable rhetoric or improved policies is likely to salvage the possibility of peace. Mr Biden can and must prevent it, but he will have to move quickly.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National