Biden Can’t Free Palestine
The Oslo paradigm has proved dangerous for Palestinians. It’s time to look beyond it.
This article is part of The Biden Transition, Foreign Policy’s ongoing coverage of how U.S. President-elect Joe Biden builds a new White House administration—and what the new team’s policies might be.
Palestinians let out a collective sigh of relief after U.S. President Donald Trump’s election defeat. Like much of the rest of the world, they had been anxiously awaiting the outcome—and lamenting the fact that a political process halfway around the world continues to have an undue impact on the trajectory of their lives.
While President-elect Joe Biden’s win—or, rather, Trump’s impending exit—offers Palestinians a brief reprieve, it also presents them with a sobering reality with which they must now contend. The Biden administration may prove less threatening to the Palestinian cause than its predecessor, but it is not likely to facilitate a path toward Palestinian freedom or rights.
Far from it, Biden will likely usher in a return to the suffocating pre-Trump normal of the Oslo paradigm—the framework, based on the 1993 and 1995 Oslo Accords, that advocates for a two-state solution through bilateral negotiations mediated by the United States. Flawed for numerous reasons—not the least of which being that it is sorely outdated—the dormant Oslo peace process renders the United States the playmaker in Palestinians’ collective fate.
Pursuing a political strategy rooted in dependency on a rotating slew of U.S. presidents—and now, the Biden administration—won’t deliver Palestinians their freedom. To achieve liberation, Palestinians must take the next four years to look internally and revive a national movement that has been on its deathbed for decades.
Over the course of the past four years, the Trump administration relentlessly assaulted the Palestinian right to self-determination—essentially seeking its outright erasure. The White House targeted pillars of Palestinian society and politics: recognizing Israel’s annexation of Jerusalem, pressuring the Palestinian Authority to cut welfare payments to the families of political prisoners, and eliminating funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees.
Under Trump, the United States moreover cut diplomatic ties with the PLO and pushed for normalization agreements between Arab states and Israel so as to isolate the Palestinian leadership. The president’s strategy, in effect, was to force Palestinians into capitulation as millions suffered. Now, as a lame-duck president, Trump has enabled the demolition and displacement of an entire Palestinian community, labeled the global Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions movement as anti-Semitic, and normalized Israel’s illegal settlements on Palestinian land.
This week, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. secretary of state to visit an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, breaking a decades-long taboo in Washington. To make matters worse, Pompeo announced that wine made in the illegal settlement—including a red wine named after him—would be labeled as “Made in Israel,” thereby recognizing Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank.
What made Trump’s approach all the more flagrant to the architects—and enablers—of the Oslo process was that it violated the paradigm’s rules, which have come to define the last 30 years of policy paralysis. Trump defied the Oslo proponents’ unspoken holy grail: paying lip service to the two-state solution while in practice acquiescing to the very one-state reality Israel is shaping on the ground.
With his so-called “deal of the century,” Trump rightly recognized that the two-state solution under the Oslo paradigm was no longer feasible because Israel had deliberately turned a prospective Palestinian state into a series of Bantustans.
Rather than further the illusory rhetoric in favor of a two-state solution heralded by previous U.S. administrations, Trump’s deal merely formalized the reality on the ground—which resembles a fragmented Palestinian archipelago sinking in an encroaching sea of Israeli control. For the first time, a U.S. president openly endorsed the vision of “Greater Israel,” in which Palestinians would be second- and third-tier subjects in a system of perpetual supremacy of one people over another, otherwise known as apartheid.
Trump and his so-called “peace plan” exposed the facade of a system—Oslo—that is structurally flawed. For the last three decades, the foreign policies espoused by countries around the world have been unable to end Israel’s systems of oppression and injustice, let alone safeguard the two-state solution from oblivion. Yet the Oslo paradigm persisted because it offered policymakers a tolerable equilibrium that removed the imperative to act and hold Israel accountable.
This system has been propped up by foreign aid poured into a state-building project—the Palestinian Authority—that allows Palestinians to maintain just enough of a standard of living so as not to provoke an uprising or humanitarian crisis. It moreover allows Israel to “manage the conflict” with no real cost by subcontracting the occupation to the Palestinian Authority through security cooperation and service provision agreements. The political glue that has held this charade together is the empty mantra of trying to “get both sides back to the negotiating table” in a U.S.-brokered “peace process,” as if we were on the doorstep of 1991 rather than 2021.
The Oslo paradigm is dangerous—a purgatory that shackles and suffocates any real progress toward addressing the systemic injustices Israel inflicts against the Palestinian people. Instead of envisioning a new path forward—one that reflects the realities of all that has changed over the past three decades—Oslo’s proponents are busy rearranging chairs on the deck of the Titanic as the ship itself sinks. These same individuals then feign surprise at the ever worsening status quo faced by millions who live under a one-state reality where freedom and rights are afforded by ethnonational identity.
Palestinians are in dire need of a radically different approach—one that Oslo, by design, cannot provide. Nor can the Biden administration. In many ways, Trump’s approach to the conflict was less a departure from standard U.S. policy than a culmination of it—coming on the heels of a decades-long trajectory set by U.S. presidents and bipartisan policy consensus in Washington at which Biden and Harris were front and center. The single-most critical failure of that policy was not challenging Israel.
Today, there are growing calls by the U.S. progressive movement—led by Sen. Bernie Sanders and Reps. Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—to condition military funding to Israel. But, if the past is any indication, the Biden-Harris administration will seek to bolster the U.S. relationship with Israel rather than challenge it. In 1986, Biden famously said on the Senate floor that U.S. military funding to Israel was “the best $3 billion investment we make.” He added: “Were there not an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect its interests.”
Palestinians cannot afford to return to the hamster wheel of Oslo and engage in a political strategy of dependency for the next four years—or more. Biden won’t deliver Palestinian liberation or even the so-called state many seek within the Oslo paradigm. For now, the best Palestinians can hope for is Biden reversing or remedying some of Trump’s harmful policies. Even then, those expectations must be tempered.
With the best-case scenario in Washington being stasis, it’s time for Palestinians to look internally for solutions—reawakening a national movement that has suffered one of its darkest chapters in history. Palestinians must invest in an inclusive, representative, and democratic political system that can offer millions of disenfranchised individuals a voice to shape their future. This could be through reform and elections to the PLO, or it could take the shape of a new political system designed to bring Palestinians together—ending the political, social, and geographic fragmentation that has until now stood in the way of a unified national project.
A new political space should bring with it new visions for the future of Palestine. The majority of Palestinian society is under 30 years of age, meaning they are part of the Oslo generation: those who were promised a state but never got one. These Palestinians are solution-agnostic with no ideological leanings toward two states or one. All they want is to be free and have their full rights, but the current system denies them both.
A vision for the future must center the need to dismantle the system of ethnonational supremacy in the one-state reality and offer a new social contract for all people who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea that is built on freedom, equity, justice, and rights not contingent on ethnic or religious identity. Achieving this aim will require a movement of like-minded Palestinians and Israeli Jews intent on building a better future for all.
But this new vision cannot take shape without the global community creating a hospitable environment in which it can flourish. Unfortunately, the Oslo process rendered many countries complicit in Israel’s oppression of Palestinians. But it has also given many countries the power to sway Palestinians’ lived realities—for better or for worse. Now, they can either choose more of the same or opt to support a new path toward systemic justice. The latter option requires holding Israel accountable for its violations of human rights, civil rights, and international law.
What would this accountability look like? First, countries must condition and ultimately end military funding and arms sales to Israel as a result of its human rights abuses. Second, countries, especially the United States, must end charity tax exemptions offered to its citizens over financial support to illegal Israeli settlements. Third, privileges such as open visas, travel, and trade offered to settlers living on occupied land must be stopped. Fourth, countries must ban products and services produced in illegal settlements within the occupied Palestinian territories—and hold accountable entities that either operate in or have relations with those who operate in occupied territory, such as Airbnb and Psagot wine.
The European Court of Justice has taken a good first step by mandating that products made in settlements and sold within the European Union must be labeled accordingly. Finally, foreign aid must be leveraged to make sure democracy is being respected—and ensure the suffocating political structures of Oslo aren’t reinforced or exacerbated.
Of course, these policies are only a start toward ensuring a more promising future for all. But even a start is a radical shift away from stagnancy. Palestinians understand that the global community cannot deliver them freedom, but it does have the power to choose either to support or impede the Palestinian people in their quest for it.