Report Card Mixed on Biden Administration's Commitment to Balanced Approach towards Arabs at Home and Abroad
By: John Mason / Arab America Contributing Writer
Arab America reported optimistically about November 2020’s Biden-Harris victory. We believed that Arabs, especially Palestinians, and Muslims worldwide would have something positive to look forward to. A ‘B+’ grade is awarded for the Biden Administration’s support of Arab Americans and non-Arab Muslim-Americans. However, only a ‘D’ grade is rendered for Biden’s handling of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Realpolitik and Palestinian disillusionment with Biden’s approach portend a continued faltering progress in achieving freedom and justice for Palestinians.
‘B+’ grade for support of Arab Americans and non-Arab Muslim-Americans
Arab America reported on an optimistic note in November of 2020, following the Biden-Harris victory, that Arabs, Palestinians, and Muslims worldwide would have something positive to look forward to. The new leaders have been decidedly better than their predecessors in addressing these issues openly and forcefully. Arab American civil society had pressed the incoming administration to address Arab issues. Biden-Harris responded with its own “Arab American Community: A Plan for Partnership.” That plan addressed not only Arab American issues, but broader Muslim matters, specifically those of Palestinians.
The Biden-Harris campaign had heavily courted Arab Americans and non-Arab Muslims right up to election day. That effort paid off, at least based on preliminary voting estimates, with both constituencies significantly supporting the elected ticket. Jobs, health care, and race relations were major reported factors in gaining their vote. Biden and Harris stressed Arab American contributions to “the fabric of our nation.” It underscored the fight against anti-Arab bigotry and pledged to place Arab Americans in positions across the administration.
Here are some of the promises Biden met on taking the presidency. On Day 1 as President, Biden rescinded the Trump-imposed and un-American Muslim travel and refugee bans. Biden proclaimed that prohibiting the populations of entire countries from coming to the United States is morally wrong, does not make our nation more secure, and is yet another abuse of power by the preceding Administration. A specific promise was kept in passing Senator Harris’ earlier co-sponsored bill, The Khalid Jabara and Heather Heyer NO HATE Act, which improves national hate-crime reporting and data collection, as well as victim assistance and support.
Yet another co-sponsored Harris bill that was also passed was the End Racial and Religious Profiling Act, which according to the Human Rights Campaign “would prohibit federal, state, and local law enforcement from targeting a person based on actual or perceived race, ethnicity, national origin, religion, gender, gender identity, or sexual orientation.” The bill has not been introduced due to the slim Republican majority in the House of Representatives. Mr. Biden has also spoken out against Israel’s decision to deny entry to American lawmakers because they favor boycotting Israel to protest Israel’s poor treatment of Palestinians. However, Biden has been unequivocal in condemning calls in the United States to boycott, divest from, and sanction Israel.
Part of the “Plan for Partnership” was to advance equal opportunity for all Americans. Relevant to Arab Americans and non-Arab Muslim Americans was Biden’s support for the creation of a new Middle East North Africa (MENA) category. The category was recommended by the U.S. Census Bureau in 2017 so that Arab Americans can be more fairly counted and their needs studied and considered alongside other minorities. The Trump Administration politicized the 2020 Census, putting marginalized communities at risk of a drastic undercount, and abandoned the addition of a MENA category on the Census. The MENA category is now part of the census.
’D’ grade for the absence of balanced commitment by the Administration to Palestinians
One important element of the Plan for Partnership concerning Palestinians was the reestablishment of U.S. assistance through the United Nations to Palestinian refugees. The Trump team had cut off that aid. Its reinstatement immediately ensures the livelihood of Palestinians living under refugee status. Also important, the Biden team has established a special Office of Palestine Affairs in the U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem. However, the Palestinian Liberation Organization mission in Washington has not yet reopened. Nor has Biden reversed Trump’s offering Israel sovereignty over the occupied Golan Heights, an Israeli-occupied territory belonging to Syria.
In the “Plan for Partnership,” the Biden-Harris team said it would work to ensure that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy. Biden proclaimed that 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.” Further, the new Administration expressed opposition to annexation and settlement expansion.
President Biden also said he would undo the Trump-designed annexation of over 30% of the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory. He would also strenuously oppose any new Jewish settlements in the West Bank. And, as promised in the Plan for Partnership, Biden’s policies would 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.”
A deep disappointment to many was that Biden did not overturn the Trump decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. This move was anathema to many Arabs in light of the sacred character of that holy city to both Christians and Muslims. So far, none of these promises has been fulfilled. This is so, in part, because they seem to be beyond the Administration’s manageable interest, but also due to the lack of its full commitment to support Palestinians.
It is important to note that not all Arab Americans, of course, supported Biden during the presidential primary and that many were behind Bernie Sanders principally because of his strong, unequivocal support for the Palestinian issue. They nevertheless mostly supported Biden in the general election, at least in part to rid the presidency of Mr. Trump. One critique of some Arab Americans was that Biden’s plan did not include concrete solutions to undo Israeli human rights and international law violations, including specific ways in which to make Israel more accountable for those violations.
Realpolitik and Palestinian disillusionment with Biden’s approach
We’ve gleaned that President Biden had promised to change course in the Israel-Palestinian conflict. A piece of his pledge was that he had been highly critical of Israel’s settlement policy. In other words, Biden’s “heart is in the right place” regarding Palestinians. However, as Al-Jazeera reported, “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.” Furthermore, “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.”
For the most part, then, Biden’s policy continues the unconditional American support offered under every US administration since Israel’s founding. Thus national and human rights of Palestinians have not and will not be fulfilled so long as the imbalance in the relationship with Israel is continued. As Al-Jazeera reported, “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.”
One issue, indisputable, is Palestinian leadership. Under present leadership, Palestinian self-determination is impossible. Al-Jazeera purports that unless there is new leadership, “the Palestinians will remain a broken and defeated people living under occupation.” Such a change in leadership remains an internal issue and the Biden Administration is not in the right policy position to respond to Palestinian questions and hopes.
Having been in office now for over half a term, Biden has not yet begun to fulfill his promises to the Palestinians. Thus, Palestinians have become deeply disillusioned by the President’s efforts. The Los Angeles Times described the situation: “Biden’s approach to the Palestinians was already quite minimalistic coming in, focusing on reversing the most damaging changes implemented under Donald Trump while expending the least political capital.” Furthermore, Biden’s policies have not even meaningfully reversed all the damaging Trump policies.
Worse, the Biden administration has said nothing of significance to criticize rapid Jewish settlers’ encroachment on the West Bank and the demolition of Palestinian homes. In addition, the Kushner-Trump so-called Abraham Accords between Israel and several Arab countries are seen by Palestinians as a copout on any meaningful Palestine-Israel agreement on the Occupied Territories.
These accords may offer an opening for commercial relations with Israel, but according to the Los Angeles Times, “The accords that are opening ties between Israel and several Arab countries that never recognized its existence — brokered first by Trump and being expanded by Biden — have further disheartened the Palestinians who believed Arab nations would only normalize relations with Israel once statehood had been resolved.”
While pragmatic in its approach, The Times suggests, “The Biden administration argues that broad normalization will make for a more secure region that ultimately benefits the Palestinians, too. Most Palestinians do not regard it that way, having watched as their most important bargaining chip evaporated.”
In the end, the Biden administration’s commitment to Arabs is a bit schizophrenic. Domestically, the President has been able to launch a balanced approach to the treatment of Arabs and non-Arab Muslims. That is because such an approach is within his manageable interest. On the Mideast front, Biden’s commitment to Palestinians is considerably diminished by his inability to control geopolitical issues, but also because of an absence of the political will to do so.
–“10 Commitments of Biden-Harris to Arabs, Palestinians, and Muslims Around the World,” Arab America, 11/11/2020
–“Joe Biden and the Arab American Community: A Plan for Partnership,” htttps://joebiden.com/joe-biden-and-the-arab…, 2020
–“Analysis: Why Joe Biden will not change Palestinian lives,” Al-Jazeera, 4/17/2021
–“News Analysis: Palestinians feel increasingly disillusioned by Biden’s approach,” Los Angeles Times, 7/14/2022
John Mason, PhD., who focuses on Arab culture, society, and history, is the author of LEFT-HANDED IN AN ISLAMIC WORLD: An Anthropologist’s Journey into the Middle East, New Academia Publishing, 2017. He has taught at the University of Libya, Benghazi, Rennselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York, and the American University in Cairo; John served with the United Nations in Tripoli, Libya, and consulted extensively on socioeconomic and political development for USAID and the World Bank in 65 countries.
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