What the Biden Administration Can Do to Help Advance Israeli-Palestinian Peace

Israeli peace activists breathed a tremendous sigh of relief when it became clear that Joe Biden had defeated Donald Trump and would become the 46th president of the United States.

And they weren’t the only ones. There is no question that an American president who believes that the concepts of democracy and human rights should be an important part of his presidential agenda, who believes in science and that global warming is real and must be confronted and that Covid-19 requires a serious response based upon global cooperation, who is experienced in foreign relations and believes in working together with allies, and who reads intelligence briefings and appoints and listens to serious administration members is a welcome change from the disastrous past four years.

Of course, there were those who were not so happy with the results, perhaps beginning with Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his supporters, who for the past four years had been released from “the curse” of having to deal with the two Democratic administrations led by President Bill Clinton and then President Barack Obama, who famously noted in a speech before Jewish community leaders in Cleveland that “to be a supporter of Israel, you don’t have to sign on to the Likud platform.” Furthermore, unlike Trump, these two presidents clearly supported a two-state solution. Netanyahu made a point of stressing his ties with Trump, hanging up big posters during the recent three rounds of Israeli elections, while declaring that he and Trump were in “a different league.” The same is true for many other illiberal leaders around the world, such as Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, etc. This is also true for autocratic Arab leaders who 
benefited from Trump’s disdain for democratic norms. Trump was a president who never mentioned human rights and ran his administration like a monarchy, with his family and sycophantic advisors, firing anyone who didn’t toe the line.

It is to be hoped that the fact that it was possible to defeat Trump in the U.S. will become a model for what can happen in other countries suffering from populist leaderships with antidemocratic and sometimes racist tendencies. And current leaders around the world will clearly have to adjust their policies to the new reality created by the results of the American elections.

What Will This Mean for the Israeli-Palestinian Arena?

Unlike in 2008, when one of Obama’s first appointments was Senator George Mitchell, fresh from his successful mediation in the Northern Ireland peace process, as envoy to the Middle East peace process, Israel/Palestine and the Middle East in general will not be at the top of Biden’s agenda. And he will not use his first trip overseas to make a speech in Cairo focusing on human rights and democracy in the Arab world as Obama did, which undoubtedly was one of the catalysts for the Arab Spring. Biden’s first priorities will obviously be dealing with COVID-19 and the accompanying economic crisis. Also high on his agenda will be dealing with global 
warming and a return to the Paris Climate Accords.

What Can Proponents of a Viable Two-State Solution Expect and Request from the New Administration?

As a former chair of Democrats Abroad – Israel, the Israeli branch of the American Democratic Party (2012-16), I had the opportunity to participate in a pre-election Zoom conference with Tony Blinken, Biden’s senior foreign policy advisor, who has since been designated to be secretary of state in the incoming administration. The meeting was devoted to the approach to foreign affairs of a potential Biden administration, and while he didn’t go into specifics for any region, Blinken did lay out the guiding principles for a Biden foreign policy. They were: 1) rebuild American democracy so that it can be in a position to be a role model and take the lead in international affairs; 2) rejoin international agreements that Trump withdrew from, first and foremost the Paris Climate Accord but also undoubtedly the World Health Organization (WHO) and have a more constructive relationship with such international bodies as NATO and the United Nations; and 3) work together with democratic allies, first and foremost the European Union, to achieve foreign policy goals through a multilateral rather than a unilateral approach to foreign policy. The latter was also a fundamental goal of the 
Obama-Biden administration. As Biden himself said recently, “Trump’s America First” essentially meant “America Alone.” As a former head of the Senate’s Foreign Relations Committee, the president-elect is well aware of the importance of working together with allies.

So, what can we ask the Biden administration to do to revive a Middle East peace process?

1. The first thing is to declare that U.S. policy, unlike that of the Trump administration, is to clearly support a two-state solution. Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has already said that two-states will be the position of the incoming administration. What hasn’t been said yet is that the situation in the West Bank constitutes “occupation” and that there are “occupied territories,” a term the State Department under Secretary of State Mike Pompeo removed from its lexicon. That would bring U.S. policy back to the traditional position under all previous Democratic and Republican administrations, in accordance with international law.

2. The next thing is to rebuild the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians, so that the U.S. can return to at least a semblance of being an honest broker. The steps are clear, and spokespersons for the incoming administration have already declared they will take some of them:

a) Reopen the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem as the address for Palestinians, separate from the embassy, which is the address for Israelis. And, perhaps, instead of just reopening the consulate on Agron Street in West Jerusalem, it could be an important statement to the Palestinians, Israel, and the world if the consulate were to reopen in East Jerusalem, maybe at America House on Nablus Road. This would indicate possible U.S. support for East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, alongside West Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

b) Reopen the PLO office in Washington, D.C., so that there can be direct communication between the White House, the State Department, and the PLO, the authorized representative of the Palestinian people, the signatory to the Oslo Accords with the Israeli government, and the address for any future negotiations.

c) Reinstate U.S. support for UNWRA and financial aid to Palestinian hospitals and educational institutions, etc., as a basic expression of recognition of Palestinian human rights.

d) Make unambiguous declarations, backed by clear policy implications, that settlement expansion is unacceptable and a threat to the viability of a two-state solution. This is particularly true when it comes to possible settlement expansion in the Jerusalem area, such as E1. I don’t think it’s realistic, or necessarily desirable, to tie this issue to possible limitations on military aid, since the need for an ability to defend the country is a virtual Jewish-Israeli consensus, and Israel does still face military threats. But there are other ways in which the message can come across, as Republican President George H.W. Bush and his secretary of state, James Baker III, demonstrated with their loan guarantees pressure, which ensured that a reluctant Likud Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir would agree to participate in the 1991 Madrid Conference.

e) One possible way to try to create a more level playing field between the Israelis and the Palestinians, as a basis for a renewal of a peace process, is to declare U.S. recognition of the state of Palestine. This is the proposal of the Policy Working Group (PWG), a team of some 25 Israeli senior academics, former diplomats, civil society activists, and media practitioners chaired by former Ambassador Ilan Baruch, a member of the PIJ editorial board. I’m a PWG member as well. We issued a statement on November 29, 2020, the anniversary of the passage of UN General Assembly Resolution 181, which began:

                 Today, as the world marks the anniversary of the UN General Assembly’s adoption of Resolution 181, which calls for the 

                 establishment of two states – one Jewish and one Arab — on the territory that constituted British Mandatory Palestine, the 

                 Policy Working Group is calling for global recognition of the state of Palestine without delay. Recognition of Palestine would

                 fulfill the right of both nations to exercise self-determination and would forge a path toward coexistence, peace, security, and prosperity for all.

f) Reinstate USAID financial support for joint Israeli-Palestinian projects. In one of the most absurd and detrimental acts of his administration in the Israeli-Palestinian arena, Trump decided to “punish the Palestinians” by denying USAID grant support for joint Israeli-Palestinian projects. Such activity helps to build the constituency for Israeli-Palestinian peace in both societies, and while a bipartisan vote in Congress has already called for a revival of support for joint projects, that goal should also be supported at the presidential level. The special International Fund for Ireland was one of the keys to building mass civil society support in both the Catholic and Protestant communities for the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland which ended armed conflict between the IRA Republicans and the Ulster Loyalists. A similar level of support for joint Israeli-Palestinian civil society initiatives is absolutely essential to increasing the prospects for peace and coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians.

3. Although desirable, it is highly unlikely that the Biden administration will initiate a major new Middle Eastern peace initiative, along the lines of the Madrid Conference, the Annapolis Conference, or the John Kerry negotiations. Since Biden believes in a multilateral foreign policy, however, one can hope that if parties such as the EU or principal member states, Russia, China, the Arab League, or others were to take the lead, the U.S. would give its backing to their initiatives.

a) One possibility would be a revival of the Middle East Quartet — the U.S., the EU, the UN, and Russia — which would initiate moves towards a revival of a serious peace process. 
b) The idea of an international peace conference hosted by France, Germany, Russia, China, the UN, or others, including the idea of a Madrid II conference that the U.S. would support and possibly cohost, is also a possibility. 
c) If the U.S. is not yet ready to declare recognition of a Palestinian state, other democratic Western European countries can follow Sweden’s example and do so, with tacit American support.

Can the Normalization Agreements Be a Lever for Progress?

And then there is the question of the normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, known as the Abraham Accords. Can they also become a lever for progress toward a renewal of the peace process?

Although the Palestinians understandably were angry at them for undermining the core principle of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API), which declared that an end to the occupation and the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside the state of Israel was a precondition for recognition and normalization of relations between the Arab world and the state of Israel, it should be noted that the UAE emphasized that by signing the agreement, they had taken Netanyahu’s threat to begin annexation of up to 30% of the West Bank off the table. All the Gulf states also maintain that they still support a two-state solution and the API as the basis for an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Rather than just protesting the normalization agreements, the Palestinians should try to rebuild their ties with the Gulf states and lobby them to make demands of Israel regarding the Palestinian question. Here, the incoming Biden administration can also play a role, differentiating itself from the Trump administration’s approach by both raising the issue of democracy and human rights and calling on the Gulf states and the Arab League to initiate moves that will help resume an Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Former Secretary of State John Kerry, who has been appointed to a senior cabinet-level post in the Biden administration responsible for fighting global warming, can provide advice for such an initiative based on his experience in 2013-14.

There is also a possibility that the normalization agreements, which have been received by the general Israeli public with great enthusiasm, can become a lever to help change Israeli public opinion in the context of their fears about the Arab world’s intentions, including the Palestinians. According to a survey carried out by Israel’s Channel 12 news after the agreement with the UAE was announced, 76.7% of the Israeli public preferred the agreement to annexation or what Netanyahu euphemistically calls “application of sovereignty,” while only 16.5% preferred annexation to the agreement. An interesting indicator is the fact that the Beitar Jerusalem soccer team, the only team in the top league which has never had a Palestinian Israeli soccer player and has a rabid right-wing fan base, has negotiated with Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa from Dubai to buy 50% of the club without encountering any serious protest so far.

So there is much that can be done by the incoming Biden administration to correct some of the travesties the Trump administration has made of Middle East policy and to help set the stage for a renewal of the peace process.

Then, of course, there is Iran, which will most likely be the first issue in our region on the Biden administration’s agenda. An American return to the JCPOA, the “Iran Deal” — possibly with some amendments — which is supported by an overwhelming majority of Israeli and American security experts, could create problems but could also open up additional possibilities for progress in the Israeli-Palestinian arena as well. But that’s a topic for another article.