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Bahbah: The Israel-Palestine Conflict–Nine Months into Biden’s Presidency

posted on: Oct 13, 2021

Prime Minister Naftali Bennett, meets with President Joe Biden in the Oval Office at the White House (GPO)

By: Bishara A. Bahbah / Arab America Featured Columnist

Nine months into the presidency of US President Joe Biden, I am neither shocked, disappointed nor pleased with his policies toward the Middle East, especially the Israel-Palestine conflict.

Trump’s Foreign Policy

Biden assumed the presidency of the United States after four chaotic years of rule by Donald J. Trump who governed by dictate and whim.  Trump’s domestic and international policymaking process was erratic and transactional.  During his last year in office, the world was ravaged by a deadly and highly contagious pandemic, COVID-19.  Foolishly, Trump attempted to manage the pandemic from behind the podium of the White House.   He even made an issue about whether people should wear masks to decrease the possibility of the pandemic’s spread.

Unsurprisingly, Trump turned US foreign policy upside down during his tenure.  He rattled US relations with America’s most important allies; he cozied up to dictators around the world; he targeted China as a major threat to the United States and world stability, and he belittled and mocked the post-World War II international institutions such as the United Nations and the NATO alliance. 

With regard to the Middle East, Trump emerged as the most pro-Israel president that the United States has ever had.  He recognized Jerusalem – East, and West – as Israel’s capital.  He recognized Israel as a “Jewish” state and became the first major power to recognize Israel’s sovereignty over Syria’s Golan Heights. 

With regard to the Palestinians, Trump stopped all economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians, with the possible exception of security aid. He shut down the PLO representative office in Washington, DC, and merged the US Consulate-General in East Jerusalem with the newly opened US embassy in Jerusalem.  The US consulate in Jerusalem has traditionally been viewed as the US diplomatic post to the Palestinians.

Biden’s Foreign Policy

As Biden took over the presidency, it was becoming clear that US foreign policy was taking a back seat in terms of US overall priorities.  The economic impact of the pandemic on the United States has been devastating.  US unemployment has skyrocketed while the US debt has ballooned and the United States has kept printing money.  Trump’s domestic policies divided the social fabric of the United States. 

With regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict, it is much easier for any US administration to take steps that are favorable to Israel than ones that are perceived as detrimental to Israeli policies.  With regard to Jerusalem, Biden indicated that he would maintain Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital without precluding the possibility that East Jerusalem could one day become Palestine’s capital. 

However, Biden’s pledge to reopen the US Consulate-General in East Jerusalem, the shadow diplomatic mission between the US and Palestine, has already faced a wall of resistance among Israeli officials.  Given that East Jerusalem is under Israel’s de facto control, the United States cannot reopen the consulate without prior Israeli approval.  As recently as October 12, Israel’s Justice Minister Gideon Saar told a Jerusalem Post conference when asked if the consulate reopening might go ahead, his answer was, “No way, no way.”  He added such a move would need Israeli approval, and “we will not compromise on this issue” for generations to come.

Ironically, the PLO office in Washington has not yet been reopened even though the reopening of the office is within the legal and diplomatic rights of the Biden administration.  Unfortunately for the Palestinians, there are a set of US rules and regulations that hamper the reopening of the PLO office without subjecting it to potential lawsuits by ordinary US citizens. 

US Resumes Aid to the Palestinians

On April 7, 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that the United States would resume assistance to the Palestinians that was brought down to zero by Trump in 2018.  The US aid package will provide $235 million in economic, humanitarian, development, and security assistance to the Palestinians in 2021. The bulk of the aid, $150 million, will be humanitarian and funneled through the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA).  Another $75 million will be allocated for economic development programs in the West Bank and Gaza, and $10 million will go toward peace-building operations carried out by the US Agency for International Development (USAID).  Somewhere in the aid package are funds earmarked for security assistance and coordination.

No Diplomatic or Peace Initiatives

It has been made plainly clear that Biden will not spend much of his efforts on the Middle East entertaining new or renewed peace initiatives.  Unlike the Trump administration, Biden prefers to maintain the status quo between Israel and Palestine.  The US will not loudly object to the expansion of “existing” settlements nor will it push for an independent Palestinian state.

The US would like to see an improvement in the standard of living among Palestinians under Israel’s control by encouraging Israel to provide more work permits for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. 

In fact, as a gesture of goodwill, it was just announced that Israel will approve a long-standing request by the Palestinians to provide residencies to Palestinians who have been stateless in their own homeland.  Such a gesture will not alter the balance of power nor the number of Palestinians living in historic Palestine. 

The U.S. view of Mahmoud Abbas is that he is compliant yet a corrupt ruler.  There has been chatter about establishing a Palestinian national unity government made up of technocrats to help improve the living standards among Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank.  Both the US and Egypt are pressuring the Palestinian Authority and Hamas to try to form a coalition government, to promote long-term calm and the reconstruction of the Gaza Strip.

In short, the most tangible Biden policy change will be the resumption of aid to the Palestinians and steps that could be taken to instill calm on the West Bank and Gaza fronts.  Biden does not have the motivation nor the commitment to achieve a long-term peace between Israel and Palestine.  He simply wants the conflict out of the news consuming as little of his time as possible.  Biden’s major policy concerns are his domestic agenda and his main foreign policy objective of containing the tiger of the East – China.

Prof. Bishara A Bahbah taught at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.  He was the editor in chief of the Jerusalem-based Al-Fajr Palestinian newspaper and served, with self-admitted failure, as a member of the Palestinian delegation on “Arms Control and Regional Security.”  He currently contributes on a regular basis to 15 newspapers and media outlets.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the position of Arab America.

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