After four years of evangelical solidarity with the settler movement, How will a Biden administration handle the Israel-Palestine conflict?
As of January 20th, 2021, Joe Biden is officially the 46th President of the United States of America. So far, his first few days in office have been promising; the US has re-joined the Paris Climate Agreement, the World Health Organization, and halted construction on Trump’s border wall with Mexico. Those of us who have, over the past four years, warily watched the Trump administration throw its full weight behind the right wing government in Tel Aviv have a pressing question of our own to ask: what role will a Biden administration play in the longstanding conflict? 2020 was, by all accounts, an eventful year for Israel. Benny Gantz and Benjamin Netanyahu formed a coalition government in May 2020, after three successive elections over eighteen months repeatedly resulted in a stalemate between the former IDF general and the leader of the Likud party. But the uneasy power-sharing agreement between the former-political-adversaries-turned-coalition-partners turned out to be even more short-lived than many had expected.
As of December 22nd 2020, the Knesset (the Israeli parliament) stands dissolved, after lawmakers failed to pass the bi-annual state budget proposed in the coalition agreement signed between Netanyahu’s Likud and Gantz’ Blue and White. This year on March 23rd, Israeli citizens will be heading to the polls to vote in their fourth election in two years. That’s the word on Israel’s domestic front. In one of the more rabble-rousing developments of 2020, four Arab states – the UAE, Sudan, Bahrain and Morocco – took the plunge to formally recognize Israel. The peace deals, termed the “Abraham Accords” by the Trump White House, were mediated by the Trump administration during their final months in office. The name also serves as a nod to the former administration’s ties with the Evangelical community, who accounted for a sizeable portion of Trump’s vote base in 2016 and donate generously to the GOP.
Given Sudan’s fractious history with Israel, the country’s relations with Israel have certainly come a long way since the Khartoum Conference of 1967 – which took place after the Arab defeat in the disastrous Six-Day War, or al-Naksah (in Arabic, literally ‘the setback’) as it is commonly referred to in the Arab world. It was at the Khartoum conference that the Arab League famously issued their three ‘No’s’: No to peace, No to recognition, and No to negotiations with Israel.
The current administration will need to decide what to do about Trump’s so-called ‘Deal of the Century”. The plan, unveiled in 2019, recognizes Israeli sovereignty over the Jordan Valley, which includes about one third of the Occupied West Bank as well as the Golan Heights. Undivided Jerusalem is recognized as the Israeli capital, ignoring Palestinian calls for East Jerusalem to be the capital of the future Palestinian state.
Jewish settlements in the occupied territories are also to become part of Israel (the word ‘occupation’ is conspicuously absent from the 181 page document). The future Palestinian ‘state’ is envisioned as a completely demilitarized entity. Israel shall retain complete control over airspace and water.
Moreover, the plan does not allow for the right of return for the Palestinian diaspora, who are descended from the nearly 700,000 Palestinian Arab refugees who were left stateless and adrift after being forcibly evicted from their homes in the aftermath of the Nakba in 1948. Estimated to number at over 7 million, the Palestinian diaspora is one of the largest diasporas in the world.
The Trump plan runs roughshod over multiple United Nations General Assembly and Security Council resolutions – most important of which are the UNGA Resolution 181 of 1947, which calls for the partition of Palestine into Arab and Jewish states, with the city of Jerusalem as a “corpus separatum” (“separate entity”) to be governed by a special international regime; UNSC resolution 242 of 1967 which calls for Israeli troops to withdraw from the occupied territories, acknowledges the claim of sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every state in the region and calls on the UN secretary general to appoint an envoy to facilitate an acceptable solution to the conflict; and UNSC Resolution 2334 of 2016 which calls for a two-state solution.
Israeli settlements in the West Bank and the Golan Heights (territory Israel seized during the Six Day War) are illegal under the statutes of international law. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention states that “The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies.” Evicting residents from occupied territory also violates international law, as the Article also forbids the “individual or mass forcible transfers, as well as deportations of protected persons from occupied territory.”
The Trump administration adopted a two-pronged foreign policy approach towards Israel; it supported the Israeli settlement of the West Bank, Gaza, the Golan Heights and the Israeli claim over the occupied territories, and secondly, it took a hawkish stance against Israel’s public enemy number one: Iran. Trump deployed David Freidman as ambassador to Israel, who publicly voiced his support for the settlement of the occupied territories and the West Bank, consequently earning the nickname of “the settlers’ ambassador”. In November 2020, then-Secretary of State Mike Pompeo became the first serving US official to visit Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, effectively acknowledging them as legitimate Israeli territory.
As far as his record shows, President Biden has, throughout his career, been unequivocal in his support for Israel. He supported the Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995, which recognized undivided Jerusalem as the capital city of Israel and called for the US to move the American embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, a good 23 years before Trump administration finally did make the move. He defended US military aid to Israel as “the best $3 billion investment we make” on the floor of the Senate in 1986. He has gone on record to state that were there not an Israel, the US would have to “invent an Israel” to safeguard their interests in the region. While he was still the presumptive Democratic nominee for President, he declared that while he disagreed with the abruptness of Trump’s embassy move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, he would nevertheless not relocate it back to Tel Aviv, now that the move has been made. Instead, he has vowed to re-open the US consulate in East Jerusalem to, in his words, “engage the Palestinians.” Biden’s nominee for Secretary of State, Antony Blinken, also iterated during his Senate confirmation hearing earlier this month that the President would keep the US embassy in Jerusalem.
As American political scientists John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt write in the introduction to their seminal co-authored text, The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy, there is very little room for US public servants to stray from the official ‘line’ on Israel. While there may be wide-ranging views on topics from healthcare to abortion to gay marriage to taxes to education to immigration, there is wide bipartisan consensus insofar as support for Israel is concerned. Both Democrats and Republicans on either side of the political spectrum deliver passionate public eulogies defending Israel, and re-affirm their commitment to the “special relationship” between the US and Israel. It would be unwise to expect strong bipartisan support for Israel, which is deeply entrenched in American political culture, to change anytime soon.
Biden has, to his credit, showed willingness to enter negotiations with Iran about their nuclear program, in a bid reinstate the Obama-era Iran Nuclear Deal that the US withdrew from in May 2018 under the Trump administration (Trump had taken aim at the deal several times during his presidential campaign, calling it a “disastrous deal”). It is also likely to try and repair the US’ fractured relationship with the Palestinian Authority (PA), who repeatedly clashed with the previous administration (the PA suspended diplomatic relations with Washington after Trump’s Jerusalem embassy move; Trump retaliated by suspending hundreds of millions of dollars in humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people, and ordering the Palestinian embassy in Washington closed).
Biden’s presidency will likely mark a return to the ‘Oslo paradigm’, which (building upon the framework of the Oslo Accords of 1993 and 1995) refers to the US playing the role of mediator in bilateral negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority to achieve a two-state solution.
Given how turbulent 2020 was for the US, what with country-wide protests against police brutality and calls for racial justice, the rise of white supremacist groups, debates on a range of issues from college tuition debt to affordable healthcare, the surging COVID death toll, soaring unemployment, the political mudslinging that remained a major feature of the election cycle (the brouhaha surrounding Hunter Biden’s business deals in Ukraine, Trump’s tax returns and the purported millions he owes in debt to the Bank of China), matters concerning foreign policy received relatively scant attention on the campaign trail. We shall have to wait and see just how far Biden will be willing to pivot from his predecessor on Israel.
Given how things are in the USA at the moment, the Biden administration will, for the first one hundred days, be largely preoccupied with delivering economic relief, trying to bring together a politically divided country and implementing the COVID vaccination plan. But with Israeli elections looming ahead in March, the US will doubtless be taking a keen interest in Israel’s domestic affairs sooner or later. Netanyahu’s challengers in the upcoming election, who include the likes of Gideon Saar and Naftali Bennett, are even further to the right of the political spectrum than him and his Likud party. With such a repertoire of candidates who will be on the ballot, Israel looks all set to elect the most right wing government in its history. When Biden does open negotiations with Tehran on their nuclear program, as he has shown every inclination of doing, he is bound to ruffle the feathers of those in power in Tel Aviv. With Trump gone, elections for the Knesset scheduled for March, and a President in office who is willing to renew the nuclear deal with Iran, this year promises to be a decisive one for all stakeholders in the Israel-Palestine conflict.
Mahnoor Khan is a student of Social Development and Policy at the Habib University, Karachi.
Mearsheimer, J. J., & Walt, S. M. (2006). The Israel lobby and US foreign policy.