It’s the ultimate prize in diplomacy, and almost every modern president has sought it despite the long, treacherous odds: a resolution to the decades-old Israeli-Palestinian crisis.
Joe Biden, though, isn’t all that interested.
Unlike Barack Obama and Donald Trump, Biden hasn’t named a special envoy to focus on the Israeli-Palestinian portfolio. Unlike Bill Clinton, Biden has no plans for any sort of peace conference, or even a peace process, anytime soon. Biden’s closest antecedent may be George W. Bush, who initially resisted engaging with the issue — but eventually found he couldn’t ignore it.
Aside from taking a few small steps to reorient the U.S. position away from the heavily pro-Israel tilt it took under Trump — including restoring some modest aid to the Palestinians — Biden and his team are signaling that the conflict is simply not a priority.
Given that the Israelis are sorting through the results of a messy election, the Palestinians have an election coming up, and Biden is tackling challenges such as an increasingly acrimonious relationship with China, officials and analysts who watch the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can understand the reluctance to wade into it now.
Still, some warn that by de-prioritizing the issue or moving too slowly, Biden could be putting a two-state solution out of reach, especially if Israel keeps expanding its settlements in territory claimed by the Palestinians.
“The Biden administration is not setting itself up to be the midwife of a Palestinian state,” said Khaled Elgindy, director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at the Middle East Institute. “They’re just not pursuing this with any degree of priority or urgency, and that would be required if you’re going to push for a Palestinian state.”
Top Biden aides have said they can’t pursue a peace deal when neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis appear ready for serious conversations.
“The only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled is through the so-called two-state solution,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken said during his confirmation hearing in January. He added, however: “I think realistically it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that.”
A terrain made tougher by Trump
If any president could manage a Mideast peace breakthrough, you’d think it’d be Biden.
Having served decades in the Senate, then as Obama’s vice president, Biden is better versed in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than most of his modern predecessors.
Biden also has relationships with key figures in the conflict, including Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. That relationship has survived serious strains, including Netanyahu’s attempts to undermine Obama’s Iran policy, his support for Israeli settlements and his public fawning over Trump. Biden took his time before talking to Netanyahu once he became president, and Biden’s supporters have said the Israeli leader has some “atoning to do.” Yet, Biden also has said in the past that he once told Netanyahu, using his nickname, “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say, but I love you.”
Still, thanks to Netanyahu and Trump’s machinations, the Biden administration already is having some difficulty finding its footing on the always-sensitive issue.
Last week, for instance, State Department officials struggled to answer questions about whether America still believes the West Bank is occupied by Israel.
The questions came after the release of the department’s annual Human Rights Report. Under Trump, that report’s references to the occupation were cut; Biden aides brought back the reference, but primarily in what were historical statements or statements attributable to entities other than the United States. The Biden administration also did not revert to the pre-Trump title of the Israeli-Palestinian section: “Israel and the Occupied Territories.” Instead, it stuck with “Israel, West Bank and Gaza.”
On Thursday, after being repeatedly pressed by journalists, State Department spokesperson Ned Price clarified the administration’s position: “Do we think that the West Bank is occupied? Yes.”
Amid that kerfuffle, at least two Palestinian business leaders stopped by Washington to meet with U.S. officials, people familiar with the matter confirmed to POLITICO. Whom they were able to meet and the details of the informal discussions were unclear, but the visit was an attempt to find ways to fully re-establish a U.S.-Palestinian connection that was largely severed under Trump.
The Palestinians’ official leadership decided to stop talking to the Trump team after December 2017, when he recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the U.S. Embassy there from Tel Aviv. Both of those moves were huge policy shifts for the United States.
Biden and his aides, however, have sent mixed signals about their interest in re-establishing the connection with the Palestinians.
Lower-level Biden administration officials are now in regular touch with Palestinian counterparts. But Biden has not yet spoken to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, even though he has spoken to Netanyahu. According to media reports, Abbas rejected an earlier offer of a call from Blinken, saying he wanted to hear from the U.S. president directly.
Officials with the Palestinian Authority did not offer comment or could not be reached. The Israeli Embassy would not offer comment.
A lack of movement, and will
Other Biden moves, or lack thereof, have frustrated Palestinians, according to former officials and analysts with links to the region.
Biden has decided not to reverse Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, and the U.S. Embassy will not be moved back to Tel Aviv. This was not a surprise to the Palestinians and their supporters.
They’d hoped, however, to see Biden already re-open the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, which Trump shut down. That office served as a key U.S. diplomatic conduit for the Palestinians, who do not want to use the U.S. embassy, which traditionally dealt with Israel.
While the Biden administration has indicated it wants to re-open the consulate, it’s not clear when it will. It hasn’t even made a symbolic move in that direction, like putting up a sign once again labeling the building the consulate general.
Also unclear is when the U.S. will allow for the reopening of the Palestinians’ diplomatic mission in Washington. Trump closed that office, citing the Palestinians’ refusal to engage in peace talks with Israel and their push to have the International Criminal Court investigate alleged Israeli war crimes against the Palestinians.
Re-opening that office is legally complicated. Legislation signed by Trump prevents the Palestinians from opening an office in the U.S. unless they pay hundreds of millions of dollars in penalties levied through U.S. courts over past attacks whose victims included Americans.
A former U.S. diplomat familiar with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict said that the longer the Biden administration waits to make any move, the more time it gives its opponents to rally public opinion against it. Already, some commentators are accusing Biden of “coddling” the Palestinians.
“These things have their own momentum,” the former U.S. diplomat said. The Biden team is “trying to go in a little bit, and they’re paying a high price already … they make it harder by not just owning this and saying what they stand for and doing it.”
A thin Biden bench
In contrast, Trump and his aides made it clear they were happy to ignore diplomatic conventions and even longstanding international legal consensus when it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, for instance, declared that the U.S. no longer saw Israeli settlements in the West Bank as violating international law. The Biden administration has yet to rescind that decision. And it hasn’t reversed the Trump administration’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, area claimed by Syria.
The former administration, led by Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser Jared Kushner, also unveiled a peace proposal for the region so heavily weighted in favor of Israel that the Palestinians immediately rejected it. There’s no sign the Biden administration is interested in pursuing the road map laid out by Kushner and his team.
But the Trump administration did help orchestrate one breakthrough that some Mideast hands say could help salvage the two-state ideal: agreements between Israel and some Arab states to normalize their diplomatic relations. The so-called Abraham Accords could be expanded to cover other Arab countries currently at odds with Israel, said Dennis Ross, a longtime Mideast peace negotiator who has worked for multiple administrations.
Some Arab countries, such as Saudi Arabia, could offer to normalize their relations with Israel in exchange for steps that help the Palestinians, Ross said. At the very least, he said, “there is something to work with.”
A senior State Department official said the Biden administration is “100 percent” dedicated to building on the accords. “We are working continuously to build on the existing normalization agreements and look for opportunities to develop new ones,” the official said.
That’s the sort of work that requires significant diplomatic firepower. So far, however, Biden hasn’t devoted much staffing to the Israel-Palestinian aspect of it — what some analysts and former officials say is the biggest sign yet of how low a priority it is.
The key U.S. official dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue is Hady Amr, a deputy assistant secretary of State. Although he’s well-regarded, his authority is limited. Biden has not named an assistant secretary of State for the Middle East yet, and the top Middle East-focused officials at the National Security Council, Brett McGurk and Barbara Leaf, are seen more as experts on Gulf Arab issues rather than the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.
There’s no talk of Biden naming a special envoy for the conflict. By contrast, the administration quickly named special envoys to deal with the conflict in Yemen and nuclear talks with Iran. It’s even considering naming a special envoy for the Horn of Africa.
Amr’s team produced a memo, obtained by the news organization The National, that laid out moves toward a “reset” of the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians. According to The National, the ideas floated include “reopening a U.S. mission in the Palestinian territories,” but that option is still being examined.
One of the memo’s ideas has become a reality: The U.S. announced it was resuming some financial assistance to the Palestinians, nearly all of which Trump had cut off. At least $15 million of a reported $100 million to be released so far will help Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza deal with the Covid-19 pandemic.
Former officials and analysts said the memo, as described by The National, appears to lay out a reasonable approach to return to something close to the pre-Trump U.S.-Palestinian relationship. But while it pays homage to a two-state solution, it doesn’t break new ground on ways to achieve that.
The Biden administration has urged Israelis and Palestinians to avoid moves that threaten the possibility of a two-state solution. But such U.S. warnings are often ignored. Israel once announced plans for new settlement construction as Biden was visiting in 2010, infuriating the then-vice president. Just days before Biden took office as president, Israel announced it was advancing plans to build hundreds of new settler homes in the West Bank.
A State Department readout of a call last week between Blinken and Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi did not mention the two-state solution, even though Blinken has said the Biden administration is committed to it. The readout said, however, that Blinken “emphasized the administration’s belief that Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy.”
Scholars of the conflict found that language intriguing, saying it could be a recognition of the shrinking physical and legal space Palestinians feel they have to operate. A growing number of Palestinians, many of them young, say Israel has obtained so much control over their land and their lives that it’s time to abandon the two-state ideal in favor of a one-state solution in which Palestinians have the same rights as Israelis.
Israeli and Palestinian politics are further staying America’s hand.
Israel just held its fourth election in two years, and there’s already talk of a fifth. Netanyahu’s Likud Party won the largest number of seats. It is now in coalition talks, with the results not at all certain. Netanyahu also faces corruption allegations that have clouded his political future.
Meanwhile, the Palestinians are about to hold their first elections in 15 years — parliamentary ones in May and a presidential one in July. Abbas, counting on a win, may be holding the elections to show Biden he remains the legitimate leader of his people. But it’s risky. Already, there are divisions within Abbas’ Fatah faction. There’s also always the possibility of a strong showing by politicians affiliated with Hamas, the militant group that controls the Gaza Strip.
The United States has labeled Hamas as a terrorist organization. If Hamas ends up with a meaningful role in the Palestinian leadership, that could make it harder for the United States to engage with the Palestinians.
Among the people closely watching Biden’s Mideast moves are former top aides to Trump. Some of them argue that until the Palestinians enact serious reforms, Biden should not give an inch to their side.
Those reforms should include stopping payments to Palestinians who are imprisoned by Israelis — what critics call “pay-to-slay,” said Jason Greenblatt, who served as a special envoy for the Israeli-Palestinian issue during the Trump years.
Greenblatt added that the U.S. also should stand up for Israel against bodies like the International Criminal Court and the U.N. Human Rights Council. He also said he was concerned about reports of resumed U.S. aid to the Palestinians and would oppose any direct funding to Palestinian government bodies.
Overall, though, Greenblatt said he’s pleased Biden isn’t simply throwing away everything the previous administration put together.
“I appreciate the slow nature of the new administration’s decision-making process, and I hope that they don’t sway from the approach that we took,” Greenblatt said.
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