The National / November 22, 2021
It has been 300 days since Joseph Biden was inaugurated US President. There’s no question that he’s had a rough go of it. He’s had to contend with a united Republican Party committed to blocking his every move, and a handful of Democratic senators and members of Congress wanting to chip away at key components of his signature domestic legislation. Mr Biden has also had to deal with the chaos left behind by his predecessor. Despite these obstacles, he has had some successes.
Between now and his first anniversary in office, interest groups of all sorts will evaluate the extent to which Mr Biden’s administration has been able to fulfill the commitments he made during his campaign. During the next few months, it will be important to take a look at a number of the pledges candidate Joe Biden made to the Arab American community in 2020. The issue of Palestine and Israel is a good place to begin.
During the 2020 campaign season, I was involved in the negotiations with the Biden team over the language that would shape its platform on Middle East-related issues. When it came to Palestine and Israel, they were willing to insert some language the US had failed to have included in earlier years. Mr Biden’s platform does, for example, speak about the equal worth and value of Palestinians and Israelis. It also condemns Jewish settlements — language we were unable to insert into the platforms of Barack Obama and Bill Clinton.
The focus of the pressure in 2020 was on the insistence that the Biden campaign accept the principle of conditionality — tying US political and economic assistance to Israel to its policies in the occupied Palestinian territories. We failed to have any language of this sort inserted in the platform — and the absence of conditionality is the reason the Biden administration has been unable to deliver on its other campaign pledges in this area.
In both his 2020 platform and his campaign’s “Plan for Partnership” with the Arab-American community, Mr Biden said a number of things about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. He said he “believes in the worth and value of every Palestinian and every Israeli”, and “will work to ensure that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy”.
He said his “policies will be grounded in a commitment to a two-state solution, where Israel and the future viable state of Palestine will live together in peace, security, and mutual recognition”. He said he “opposes any unilateral steps by either side that undermine a two-state solution. He opposes annexation and settlement expansion and will continue to oppose both as President”.
He also said he will “take immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, consistent with US law”, “reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem” and “work to reopen
Even a cursory glance at the list makes it clear that with the exception of humanitarian assistance, the Biden administration has failed to deliver on, or even make progress towards, any of the other pledges they made.
The lives and worth of Palestinians have repeatedly been subordinated in US policy to those of Israelis. Israel has continued to take unilateral measures that put a two-state solution out of reach. And it appears that the Biden administration has surrendered to Israel and pro-Israel “hawks” in Congress on reopening both the Jerusalem Consulate (which is actually in West, not East, Jerusalem) and the PLO office in Washington.
During the past 10 months, the situation confronting Palestinians in the occupied territories has appreciably worsened. The Gaza war – precipitated by a combination of provocative Israeli actions and by Hamas’s foolish and costly use of rockets – resulted in the deaths of more than 200 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis, devastation to Gaza’s infrastructure and the destruction of the homes of tens of thousands. Dozens of Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank also lost their lives to Israeli fire.
The Biden administration had only a timid response to both Israel’s actions in Jerusalem and its disproportionate use of force in Gaza and the West Bank. And the aid the US has offered Palestinians, while welcomed, was $360 million — a paltry sum when compared to Israel’s $3.8 billion annual aid supplemented by an additional $1bn to replenish its “Iron Dome” defence system.
Israel’s new government has announced plans to significantly increase the number of settlement housing units in the occupied lands and has “legalized” a number of previously “unauthorized” settlements — this growth consolidates Israeli control over the territories and makes difficult the establishment of an independent, viable Palestinian state. At the same time, Israel has continued to demolish Palestinian homes and do little to curb the spike in organized settler violence and harassment directed at Palestinians living near illegal Jewish settlements. To make matters worse, the Israelis have declared leading Palestinian human rights monitoring and advocacy groups to be terrorist-affiliated.
In the face of these Israeli actions, the Biden administration has done little more than express “deep concern” — which the Israelis dismiss out of hand. Doing nothing more concrete to cause Israel to change its policies of settlement growth, creeping annexation and increasing the pressure on captive Palestinians contradicts all of the goals set by the Biden team.
In an effort to defend the administration’s inaction, some express concern that a more combative stance against the new Israeli government would threaten its stability and risk bringing hardline ex-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu back into office. They also suggest that challenges to Israel will cause blowback from both Republicans and some Democrats in Congress. While this may be true, subordinating Palestinian rights to concerns for Israeli or domestic politics certainly calls into question the Biden administration’s stated commitment to the “equal worth and value of both Israelis and Palestinians”. It renders pledges to Palestinians hollow and mostly performative. Mr Biden still has time to course-correct and demonstrate desperately needed leadership in making good on his platform promises. It’s what he should do.
James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute and a columnist for The National