If Biden Wants Israeli-Palestinian Peace, He Must Break With the Past

The new administration should not simply undo Trump’s toxic legacy and return to the dead-end Oslo peace process. It must pressure Israel to accept the Arab Peace Initiative.

An Israeli man wears a hat supporting U.S. President Donald Trump while holding the Israeli flag in the settlement of Givat Hamatos on Nov. 16, 2020 near Jerusalem.
An Israeli man wears a hat supporting U.S. President Donald Trump while holding the Israeli flag in the settlement of Givat Hamatos on Nov. 16, 2020 near Jerusalem.

In 1967, Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Dayan epitomized Israeli triumphalism in the aftermath of the Six-Day War when he told Nahum Goldmann, the veteran American Zionist leader: “Our American friends offer us money, arms and advice. We take the money, we take the arms, and we decline the advice.” The statement reflected the widely held belief that Israel could take U.S. support for granted.

“What would happen if ever America were to tell you: you can have the aid only if you also take the advice?” Goldmann asked him. Dayan, with resignation, answered: “Then we would have to take the advice, too.”

Here, in a nutshell, is the basic flaw in the U.S. approach to Middle East peacemaking since 1967: the unconditional nature of its economic, military, and diplomatic support for Israel. The United States has posed as an honest broker, but in practice it has acted more as Israel’s lawyer. This has made its policy for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict incoherent, contradictory, and self-defeating.

Since 1967, Washington has arrogated to itself a monopoly over the diplomacy surrounding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, marginalizing the United Nations, the European Union, the Arab League, and the Kremlin. It ultimately failed, however, because it was unable or unwilling to use its massive leverage to push Israel into a final-status agreement. Israel is the United States’ most difficult client because it is not just a foreign-policy issue, but also an issue in domestic politics.

U.S. President-elect Joe Biden has been a strong supporter of Israel throughout his long political career. He has a consistent pro-Israel voting record in the Senate. Israel is “the best $3 billion investment we make,” he declared in the Senate back in 1986. “Were there not an Israel,” he added, “the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect our interests in the region.” Not only is Biden an ardent Zionist, he thinks that conditioning military aid to Israel is a “gigantic mistake” and “absolutely outrageous.”

During his eight years as U.S. vice president, Biden did much to burnish his already shining Zionist credentials. Then President Barack Obama himself saw Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory as a violation of international law and an obstacle to peace. He tried to secure a settlement freeze to give diplomacy a chance. But all his efforts, and those of then Secretary of State John Kerry, were sabotaged by Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s right-wing prime minister.

Despite his sterling record of support for Israel and pride in his personal friendship with Netanyahu, Biden was not spared Israel’s standard operating procedure of biting the hand that feeds it. In 2010, just as Biden arrived in Israel, he was greeted with the announcement that the cabinet had approved a new batch of illegal settlements in the West Bank. Biden meekly put up with the calculated insult, thereby confirming the Israelis in their belief that they could continue to repay U.S. generosity with ingratitude and contempt.

In its last year in office, the Obama administration granted Israel a military aid package worth a minimum of $38 billion over 10 years. This was the biggest military aid package in history. In keeping with Biden’s precepts, no conditions were attached to the aid.

On one issue, however, in the twilight of their administration, Obama overruled his vice president: a U.N. Security Council resolution which fiercely condemned Israeli settlement expansion. The resolution was in line with U.S. foreign policy. Biden wanted to wield the U.S. veto to defeat the resolution. Obama chose to abstain and, with 14 votes in favor, the landmark Resolution 2334 was adopted.

When Biden enters the White House on Jan. 20, Israel and Palestine will be very low on his list of priorities. At some point, however, this issue will have to be addressed, if only because of its centrality in Middle East politics. His first task will be to confront the toxic legacy of Donald Trump, the most fanatically pro-Israel president in U.S. history. Toward the Middle East as a whole, Trump did not have a coherent foreign policy as much as a series of impulsive and ill-considered moves, many of which breached international legality.

On the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, however, Trump was entirely consistent—in his partiality towards Israel. His foreign policy was virtually indistinguishable from the agenda of the Israeli right: recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the occupied Syrian Golan Heights; moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem; abolishing the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, the United States’ main channel of communication with the Palestinian Authority; cutting all U.S. funding from the U.N. agency that looks after Palestinian refugees; withdrawing crucial U.S. aid to the Palestinians; and closing down the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington.

Trump’s polarizing partisanship culminated in a plan for the future of Israel and the occupied territories, a plan he loudly trumpeted as the “deal of the century.” In substance it was not a peace plan at all but a free pass for expanding Israel at the expense of the Palestinians. It invited Israel to formally annex around 30 percent of the West Bank, including the illegal settlement blocs and the Jordan Valley, the breadbasket of the Palestinian population.

Predictably, the Palestinian Authority rejected the plan and refused to even discuss it. Netanyahu welcomed the plan but took no action to implement it because he saw no advantage in formal annexation of parts of the West Bank. He is content with the status quo, which gives Israel a free hand to continue its creeping annexation without triggering international sanctions.

It can be safely predicted that Biden will only engage in damage limitation rather than the wholesale reversal of Trump’s poisonous legacy. The president-elect promised immediate steps to restore the desperately needed economic and humanitarian aid to the Palestinians. He undertook to reopen the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem but pledged not move the U.S. Embassy back to Tel Aviv. He is opposed to settlement expansion and to formal Israeli annexation of any part of the West Bank, but he still refuses to tie U.S. aid to Israel’s human rights record or adherence to international law. And he is firmly wedded to the pre-Trump policy of favoring a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

In short, Biden is likely to revert to the traditional Democratic Party line of putting forward the United States as a so-called honest broker to help the two parties to reach a negotiated settlement. In practical terms, this means reviving what used to be called the “peace process” until Netanyahu derailed it in 2014, when it ceased to serve his own purpose.

But the peace process was always a charade—all process and no peace. It brought the Palestinians no nearer to attaining their goal of independence and statehood in the 27 years that have elapsed since the first Oslo Accord was signed on the White House lawn and clinched with the hesitant handshake between then Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and then PLO leader Yasser Arafat. What the peace process did do was to give Israel the cover it needed to continue to pursue an aggressive colonial project across the Green Line—the pre-1967 international border.

If Biden wants a real lasting peace, he must first acknowledge that the unconditional U.S. commitment to Israel with which he has been so closely associated has totally failed to achieve its stated aim of a two-state solution. Today it has become fashionable to say that the two-state solution is dead. The sheer size of the settlements on the West Bank, home to more than 650,000 Jews, rules out the possibility of a viable, territorially contiguous Palestinian state. Consequently, there is growing support on the Palestinian side, though not on the part of the Palestinian Authority, for the idea of one democratic state between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea with equal rights for all its citizens.

Biden would never adopt such a radical idea. If he adheres to the old idea of two states, he should at least take on board the changes that have taken place in Israel and the region in the past two or three decades. Israel has been moving steadily to the right, with alarming manifestations of jingoism and racism and an ever more strident stress on the Jewish rather than the democratic aspect of its identity. The July 2018 nation-state law effectively makes Israel an apartheid state by asserting that the Jews have a “unique” right to national self-determination in the area under its rule.

In addition to recognizing the illiberal and anti-democratic trends in Israeli politics, Biden would need to develop a genuine strategic dialogue with the Palestinians by dissociating himself from the policies of his predecessor, by acknowledging that the Palestinians have legitimate national rights and that they command overwhelming popular support across the entire Arab and Muslim world.

Changes in the regional balance of power also need to be taken into account. The principal change is that the Persian Gulf states no longer see Israel as an enemy and a threat but as a strategic ally in their conflict with Iran. A related change is the marked decline in the commitment of the Gulf states to the cause of an independent Palestinian state. In the second half of 2020, four Arab states normalized their relations with Israel within the framework of the Abraham Accords: the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco.

For Israel, a peace agreement with any Arab state is welcome, especially if it comes cost-free, like the past four. But the big prize is Saudi Arabia. Unlike the smaller Gulf states, Saudi Arabia has much to lose from an open betrayal of the Palestinians. It risks a backlash at home and in parts of the Islamic world. So far the kingdom has resisted U.S. pressure to give official expression to its covert intelligence and security cooperation with Israel.

It stands by its commitment to the Palestinians and to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative—which offered Israel peace and normalization with all 22 members of the Arab League as the reward for withdrawing from all occupied Arab land and agreeing to an independent Palestinian state on the West Bank and the Gaza Strip with a capital city in East Jerusalem. It also calls for a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee problem based on U.N. Resolution 194.

This was the real deal of the century. The Palestinian Authority under Arafat immediately embraced the initiative; the Israeli government under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon rejected the initiative as a “non-starter.” The Arab League reendorsed the Arab Peace Initiative at its 2007 and 2017 summit conferences. But in 2018, Netanyahu rejected it as a basis for future negotiations with the Palestinians, and no U.S. government has ever put pressure on Israel to accept it.

If Biden wants to have a real impact, his best bet is to revive the Arab Peace Initiative and use it as the basis for U.S.-led Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. This would entail penalties for Israeli intransigence. On the other hand, it would encourage and empower Saudi Arabia to clamber aboard the peace train. A bold U.S. lead would enjoy broad international support, including the Arab world, the Islamic world, the European Union, and most members of the United Nations.

Last but not least, it would enjoy the support of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party and of the majority of American Jews. Young American Jews in particular are disenchanted with Israel for its colonialism, systematic abuse of Palestinian human rights, and habitual violations of international law. Only a minority of American Jews still subscribe to the traditional policy, represented by the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, of blind support for Israel.

If Biden chooses to assume the mantle of a peacemaker, he would first have to free U.S. foreign policy from the dead hand of the Israeli government and its acolytes in the United States and have the political courage to follow Goldmann’s suggestion: to make U.S. aid conditional on heeding U.S. advice. Like any other politician, the president-elect is free to repeat the mistakes of the past. But it is not mandatory to do so.

Avi Shlaim is a professor emeritus of international relations at Oxford University and the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.