Adnan Abu Amer
Middle East Monitor / November 10, 2020
Just like everyone else, Palestinian and Israeli decision-makers are awaiting the official announcement of the result of the US presidential election confirming Democrat Joe Biden’s victory. We are also waiting to see how incumbent President Donald Trump is going to react, and if he will make any more executive orders favouring Israel.
The Palestinians and Israelis are wondering if the post-Trump US will continue to push normalisation between Arab states and Israel, or if it will decide in favour of Israel on the issue of illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank. The US Constitution allows outgoing presidents to pass any decisions they want to before the inauguration of the president-elect, so this is possible.
Biden may be more conciliatory towards the Palestinian Authority, but he has always taken care to mention his deep commitment to Israel’s security. The leadership in Israel is absorbing the impending change in Washington, as evidenced by the silence of Likud ministers, who have been instructed not to conduct interviews about the US election, despite concerns expressed behind closed doors.
In his previous roles Biden was behind US finance for Israel’s Iron Dome missile defence systems, and he will inherit the current deal with Washington committed to maintain Israel’s military supremacy in the Middle East. However, it is unclear how far he will go in this, with Israel wanting to acquire F-22 fighter jets despite knowing that the chances of this are slim.
At the same time, the PA is yearning for a new president in the White House. It felt disappointed and abandoned when Trump moved the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and shifted his focus to the Gulf States, leaving Ramallah isolated. This may prompt the Biden administration to renew confidence with the Palestinians, and start a political process with the Israelis.
It is well known that much of the Palestinian-American relationship depends on the team that the president creates around him. If they are graduates of the Obama administration, the line taken towards Israel is likely to be tougher. The Israelis will remember that Biden was there in 2016, at the end of Obama’s second term, when the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2334 against illegal settlements and Obama did not veto it. This resolution was a slap in Benjamin Netanyahu’s face.
Biden’s victory will see Israel having to accept that it bet on the wrong horse when it basically cut ties with the Democrats. Trump may have bent US policy to Netanyahu’s wishes by granting legitimacy to the settlements, recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the embassy there — he even timed his big moves to suit Netanyahu’s election schedules — but Biden will not be giving away such gifts. He will not act against the UN, the Human Rights Council and the International Court of Justice in The Hague, as Trump did. Most importantly, there will be no Nikki Haley at the UN to defend Israel on every occasion.
Today, Trump’s “deal of the century” looks to Israeli officials and settlers like a fading dream. Their fear is that Biden will return the Palestinians to centre stage; return to the two-state solution based on the 1967 borders; and give the Palestinians the $500 million of which Trump deprived them. They also fear that he will activate the US Consulate in East Jerusalem for the Palestinians’ benefit.
Nevertheless, Trump has 90 days to give Israel what it demands, and settlements are expected to be his focus. Thus we will probably see creeping de facto annexation in all but name through further recognition of the settlements. Evangelical Christian influence on this will be strong, but will not be repeated under Biden, so settlers’ leaders are talking about the need for quick decisions before his 20 January inauguration.
One of Trump’s options is to translate the deal of the century into a memorandum of understanding, or an exchange of messages between Washington and Tel Aviv. This would restrict the Biden administration and make it official US policy towards Israel.
It is clear that Biden’s election means a new era in US-Israel relations; the days of Trump’s blank cheques will be over after January. The President-elect has no interest in confronting Israel, though. He has a strong personal friendship with Netanyahu which will allow the Israeli Prime Minister to have a successful dialogue with Washington as long as he acts cautiously and responsibly. It will not be a walk in the park; there is anger towards Netanyahu in Biden’s circles.
Democrat officials believe that Biden will seek to preserve the two-state solution; avoid unilateral measures; call on Israel to refrain from expanding settlements; avoid talk about annexation; and ask the Palestinians to refrain from measures that delegitimise Israel, which includes ending the payment of stipends to prisoners held by the occupation state. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not be his top priority, however, and he will not appear to be in a hurry to bring the Palestinians back to the negotiating table.
The general feeling is that Israel will revert to the Clinton-Obama era. Aides have come through the system in the Senate, the White House, the State Department and the National Security Council. They and their policies on the conflict are fairly predictable.
Nevertheless, Israel has a lifeline in the survival of the Republican majority in the Senate. It was able to outmanoeuvre Obama, and it should be able to do the same with Biden. The Israelis and Biden have enjoyed a friendly relationship for decades, and they will coexist. It will not be an emotional relationship like Trump’s, but it will be possible. This will, of course, affect the management of the conflict, but there will be fewer guarantees to keep Tel Aviv happy.
Adnan Abu Amer is the head of the Political Science Department at the University of the Ummah in Gaza