May 14, 2021, 7:36 a.m.
In the first few months of its term in office, the Biden government slowly began to introduce a new policy towards Israel and Palestine. The pace measured was self-evident, as the administration has tirelessly focused on what is most urgent – fighting the pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis. And here, as elsewhere, former President Donald Trump, who had abandoned longstanding American politics, gave President Joe Biden’s skeletal staff much to untangle and re-sew from Middle Eastern officials. In a policy memo drawn up in February entitled: “The US-Palestinian Reset and the Way Forward”, officials suggested reinstalling the “connective tissue” that had been destroyed in recent years, reinforcing a two-state solution and the Restore funding to the Palestinians.
Officials thought they had plenty of time. You were wrong: violence has exploded again in the region, both in disgustingly familiar and terrifyingly new ways. This time it was Jewish settlers and the Israeli government who first angered a very brittle status quo by threatening to evict Palestinians from a disputed neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem and attacking Palestinians who were gathering at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and then at Al-Aqsa were mosque after Friday prayers. The Palestinians responded with provocations of their own, and then Hamas began firing rockets at Israel to terrorize the civilian population. Israel responded with air strikes and now ground forces. For the first time since 2014, the war in its peculiar and almost ritual form has broken out in the region.
The accidentally caught Biden government has reacted in a worn-out way, publicly convincing Israel of unwavering support while declaring it is “deeply concerned” about the ongoing evictions and house demolitions in East Jerusalem. Even though officials are now working with Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf states to end the violence, the humble engagement has conveyed an implicit message: Can’t you see we’re working on the infrastructure?
A pattern is emerging here. As I recently wrote about refugee policy, this government has had thoughtful, enlightened policies on almost everything, but does not want to let them get in the way. Just as the government’s panicked initial response to an unexpected crisis at the border was to violate its own tenets by refusing to accept refugees, so in the face of a sudden outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East, its reflex has been to step backwards repeal Results for Palestinians only. It is also no coincidence that in both cases the government decided not to defy political headwinds. With the refugees, the administration saw their mistake and reversed course. It is early in this last Gaza war / intifada / insurrection.
The war with Gaza is likely to end, as in the past, when both sides have inflicted so much suffering on the other – even though Israel has inflicted far more suffering – that both can declare victory and call it a day. But that must not change the conflict within Israel, in which Jews face off against Arab citizens for the first time. Coupled with the mounting tensions in East Jerusalem, the very personal violence in Israeli cities could radicalize both sides and deepen polarization. The current wave of violence finally began with right-wing Jews marching through East Jerusalem shouting “Death to the Arabs!”
It is by no means inconceivable that an increasingly nationalist Israeli state could formalize the status of second-class Arabs in the way Prime Minister Narendra Modi did to Indian Muslims. Although Human Rights Watch was harshly described in a recent report for committing the apartheid crime in the Occupied Territories to accuse Israel, an overwhelming majority of American Middle Eastern scholars in a February poll described the current situation in the West Bank and Gaza as “a one-state reality similar to apartheid”. That’s the status quo. Arabs living in Israel have far better lives than those in the Territories, but they too may have lost patience with their second-class status.
The question of what outsiders can do after the violence has ended has a new urgency. Here, too, there was a ritual in the past: American diplomats demand an end to hostilities so that the so-called peace process can be resumed, and then one futile meeting follows the other. Israel has spent decades producing “facts on the ground” – in the form of settlements, walls, critical infrastructure – that make a two-state solution logistically and politically impossible. In any case, neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor the President of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, were ready to make the very painful concessions required for a two-state solution. Still, as regional analyst Nathan Thrall noted in a seminal 2014 article, “a decent chance of success was never a prerequisite” for the peace process. Negotiations, Thrall wrote, “offer their own rewards, quite apart from their supposed purposes.” One of these rewards is to ease the pressure on real reforms to improve the lives of Palestinians.
The charade of the peace process ended with Trump pledging to resolve the insoluble, ultimately proclaiming a formula that effectively eliminated a Palestinian state or even a bargaining role for the Palestinians. Trump was the first American president to advocate the two-state solution. Last summer, an adviser to the Biden campaign suggested to me that Biden too could accept the inevitable, although he would do so in order to focus on improving the lot of the Palestinians rather than marginalizing them. In fact, Biden has publicly adopted a two-state solution, as has the State Department’s policy memo. He has been a passionate supporter of Israel for decades. But Biden watched two secretaries of state, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, fail to make peace in the Middle East, and he has no appetite for martyrdom. The word around the White House is: “We will not award a Nobel Peace Prize here.”
It is a perfectly defensible strategy to publicly commit to a two-state solution while making your real efforts to improve the condition of the Palestinians. But how? The government has already pledged $ 235 million to the Palestinians through the United Nations Relief Organization (UNRWA) and direct grants. Biden hopes to restore the Palestinian Mission in Washington and the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, both of which were eliminated under Trump – but the first would require congressional approval and the second Israeli approval. The Foreign Ministry memo apparently also suggested opening a consulate in the Palestinian territories.
These are worthwhile but modest measures. Another substantive approach suggested by Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress, is to focus on economic development and push Israel to provide more reliable water and electricity in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and building permits in the west to offer bank settlements that would allow new businesses to grow. Katulis also notes that the Arab states that signed the “Abraham Accords” promise “cooperation and dialogue” with Israel – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan – have been “largely on the sidelines” during the conflict but have been able to do so with caution American leadership is becoming an important source of economic and technical support for the Palestinians.
However, this would not solve the problem of “apartheid”. Any attempt to do so would put the Biden administration on a collision course not only with Israel but also with the US Congress, where Netanyahu has wider support than he does in Israel. For example, Daniel Levy, head of the Middle East Project (and author of a recent article on the subject in FP), argues that Palestinians will not have a legitimate government capable of advancing their interests unless Mahmoud Abbas is the case can be persuaded to cooperate with Hamas. his arch rival for the loyalty of his people. (Earlier this month, Abbas canceled long-planned elections fearing he might lose.) Levy is absolutely right about the need to get Hamas into the government tent. Even if Biden agrees – which he may not – the blessing of such a union would violate his non-martyrdom rule. He may be able to live without Netanyahu, but he cannot live without Chuck Schumer.
Then where is the line between “very hard” and “do not disturb”? Whatever Biden decides, he will have to work through the Abrahamic countries as well as Egypt and Jordan and perhaps Qatar, each of which has different leverage with both Israel and the Palestinians. Its goals should include ending the blockade in Gaza, clearing travel in the West Bank, ending the eviction and demolition, strengthening Palestinian self-government, addressing the grievances of Israeli Arabs, and combating violence by right-wing groups of whom are Netanyahu’s own government coalition.
Any of these goals would have been very difficult to achieve even in the quieter moment of Trump’s tenure; Now, after Hamas’ attacks on Israeli cities and in the midst of an endless political struggle within Israel, this seems almost impossible. There will be an overwhelming temptation to say, “This is not what we have in mind of middle-class foreign policy.” But, as former President Barack Obama learned to his great regret, it is not so from the Middle East going away an option. The tension between growing Jewish nationalism and an increasingly restless Arab population, both within the country and in the territories, may no longer be sustainable. Biden carefully hoarded his political capital; he may have to spend something where he least wants.