Thomas O Falk
Al-Jazeera / April 17, 2021
Pledges by the new US administration to change course in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are unlikely to materialise, analysts say.
The US administration under President Joe Biden has pledged to change course in the Israel-Palestinian conflict.
The reinstatement of aid payments to the Palestinians, suspended under former US leader Donald Trump, marked the start. While it could be interpreted as a positive sign in a new direction, it may be premature to expect significant change to materialise, analysts say.
The United States will donate $150m to the United Nations Relief Society for Palestine Refugees (UNWRA), and $75m will be allocated for development projects in the Gaza Strip and the West Bank, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken announced recently.
An additional $10m will be utilised for peace-building measures between Palestinians and Israelis.
The latter is pivotal for Biden’s plan to rebuild support and political contacts with the Palestinians to facilitate a two-state solution. Blinken emphasised the US vision for Israelis and Palestinians to live in “prosperity, security and freedom”.
It is a paradigm shift compared with Trump’s tenure. The former president ceased almost all financial aid for Palestinians in 2018 and supported the Netanyahu government to an unprecedented degree on critical issues such as illegal Israeli settlements.
What is known?
Biden has traditionally been critical of the Israeli settlement policy. As vice president in 2016, Biden said he had “overwhelming frustration” with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his government over the promotion and expansion of settlements.
During his election campaign, Biden reiterated his proclivity for a two-state solution and promised to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington, DC, and the US consulate in Jerusalem for Palestinian affairs.
However, experts do not see a bigger picture in the American approach. The Biden administration lacks a coherent vision for the conflict that would significantly alter the situation for the Palestinians, said Nader Hashemi, director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver.
“The White House has a vision for Israel. This is the Biden administration’s point of departure in thinking about the Palestinians and shaping their policy toward the conflict,” he told Al Jazeera, saying Israeli security matters were first and foremost.
Biden’s policy is a mere continuation of the unconditional American support provided under every US administration since Israel’s founding, said Hashemi.
Therefore, Palestinian national rights and human rights will remain unfulfilled in the tradition of not pressuring Israel into any kind of concessions, he added.
“The United States will not use its enormous diplomatic and economic leverage to force Israel to give concessions to the Palestinians to uphold international law,” Hashemi said.
Yaniv Voller, a senior lecturer in politics of the Middle East at the University of Kent, told Al Jazeera Biden’s team is one of continuation, rather than one of a reset.
“The key members of Biden’s foreign policy team – for example, Secretary of State Antony Blinken or CIA Director Dr William Burns – are long-term members of the foreign policy establishment,” said Voller.
‘Extreme anti-Palestinian posture’
Blinken’s demand to provide “equal rights” for Palestinians will not change the reality of the US-Israel relationship and his remarks were solely “cosmetic and insubstantial” and should not be taken seriously, Hashemi said.
The US secretary of state’s words were based on symbolism and aimed in two particular directions.
“Part of this is motivated by an attempt to distance Biden from Trump’s extreme anti-Palestinian posture. It is also meant to demonstrate that Biden has a human rights-centred foreign policy and is balanced in his approach between both parties to the conflict,” said Hashemi.
Besides these factors, Hashemi also believes, Blinken’s words were supposed to address concerns domestically.
“It was also a concession to the Democratic Party base, which seeks a more balanced US policy toward Israel-Palestine, along the lines that Bernie Sanders has articulated.”
Biden emphasised earlier he would neither reverse the Trump administration’s decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem nor Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights.
The US president also took a stance against the pro-Palestine voice from the Democratic Party and called the idea to utilise leverage in favour of the Palestinians “bizarre” during his election campaign.
Moreover, Biden called the Trump-brokered normalisation agreements with Arab nations and the correlating abdication of the Palestinian cause a “historic breakthrough” and pledged to convince more countries in the region to sign similar deals
Foreign policy establishment
When looking at key names in Biden’s administration, his personnel appointments reiterate the idea that a pivot of traditional practices under Biden seems unlikely.
Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden’s ambassador at the United Nations, pledged to “stand against the unfair singling out of Israel for Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions” (BDS), a movement that seeks to pressure Israel into adhering to international law. Thomas-Greenfield also stated BDS was borderline anti-Semitic.
Furthermore, and unlike President Barack Obama, Biden has yet to appoint an Israel-Palestine envoy to explore options for peace, Hashemi emphasised.
That Israel will continue to enjoy the same level of support it had under the previous administration can also be seen by Israel’s latest activities against Iran, which Washington has widely ignored.
“At the precise moment that Biden is negotiating with Iran in Vienna to resolve the nuclear issue, Israel is trying to sabotage these talks by launching another attack against Iran. The Biden administration is silent on this issue, even when Israel is deliberately undermining its own policy,” said Hashemi.
Much has been made out of the relationship Biden and Netanyahu have had over the years. Both men have known each other for decades and have had their fair share of disputes, including disagreements over settlements and Netanyahu’s disdain for abiding by a bipartisan stance.
There is even Biden’s famous quote: “Bibi I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”
Voller said the notion that a potentially fractured Biden-Netanyahu relationship could cause profound implications are overplayed.
“The fact that President Biden delayed his phone call to Netanyahu after he entered the White House was perceived by many as a signal to Netanyahu that he has lost favour in Washington. However, this gesture should not be exaggerated. At the end of the day, as long as the interests and ideological factors that have shaped US-Israeli relations are still in place, Washington under Joe Biden is unlikely to change its stance toward Israel significantly.”
If anything, the Biden administration was recalibrating Trump policies to the centre, he argued. Moreover, Biden has historically been strongly supportive of Israel.
“Biden has had long relations with Netanyahu. As Obama’s vice president but even before his appointment, Biden did not diverge from Washington’s traditional support for Israel,” said Voller.
Furthermore, even though Netanyahu might have left a sour taste in many Democrats’ mouths, that will not be sufficient to challenge the status quo, said Voller.
“Even if some Democrats hold a grudge against Netanyahu, I do not believe it will significantly affect the party’s attitude toward Israel. Many Democrats committed to Israel and would also like to appeal to pro-Israel voters in the country,” he said.
However, Voller also acknowledged the current dynamic in Israel could quickly change.
“There is a slight chance that Netanyahu may not be the next prime minister. If it is, for example, Naftali Bennett, things may look different given the latter’s more hawkish stand.”
Besides the Biden factor, hope for Palestinians recently appeared in the form of scheduled elections as Hamas and Fatah came to an agreement after years of conflict. However, Hashemi said he remains doubtful whether the votes can make a difference.
“I suspect there might be an effort to stage an election, but only if the current corrupt Palestinian leaders are guaranteed to win. First, elections under military occupation make no sense. Secondly, what about Gaza, which remains under siege,” he said.
Opponents of Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas are not free to organise and mobilise, and then there is the pandemic, said Hashemi.
Hence, without a US paradigm shift towards increased support for Palestinians and a continued corrupt Palestinian leadership, hope will continue to be rather limited.
Nonetheless, there could be a path towards a better life for Palestinians, said Hashemi, albeit one that will be difficult to master.
“I strongly believe the key to Palestinian self-determination is new Palestinian leadership, along the lines of the African National Congress in South Africa. Until and unless this happens, the Palestinians will remain a broken and defeated people living under occupation,” Hashemi said.
The change will thus have to occur internally first, as Washington is seemingly still not the answer to Palestinian questions and hopes.
Thomas O Falk is a London-based political analyst and freelance journalist who focuses on US affairs and the Middle East