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What Biden Is—and Isn’t—Willing to Do for Palestinians

The new U.S. president wants to help, but he may not be prepared to pay the price.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation.
Joe Biden waves alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prior to their meeting on March 10, 2010 in Ramallah, West Bank.
Joe Biden waves alongside Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prior to their meeting on March 10, 2010 in Ramallah, West Bank. Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

In its first few months in office, the Biden administration began to slowly roll out a new policy towards Israel and Palestine. The measured pace was itself telling, for the administration has been relentlessly focused on what is most pressing—addressing the pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis. And here, as elsewhere, former President Donald Trump’s blithe abandonment of longstanding American policy gave President Joe Biden’s skeletal staff of Middle East officials plenty of unraveling and restitching to do. In a policy memo drawn up in February and titled: “The US-Palestinian Reset and the Path Forward,” officials suggested reattaching the “connective tissue” destroyed in recent years, reaffirming a two-state solution and restoring funding to Palestinians.

Officials thought they had plenty of time. They were wrong: Violence has once again exploded in the region, in ways both sickeningly familiar and frighteningly new. This time it was Jewish settlers and the Israeli government who first upset a very brittle status quo, by threatening to evict Palestinians from a disputed neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem and by attacking Palestinians gathered at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and then at the Al-Aqsa Mosque after Friday prayers. Palestinians responded with provocations of their own and then Hamas began firing rockets into Israel with the goal of terrorizing civilians. Israel has responded with airstrikes and now ground troops. War, in the peculiar and almost ritualistic form it takes in the region, has broken out for the first time since 2014.

The Biden administration, caught unawares, has responded in time-worn fashion, publicly reassuring Israel of steadfast support while stating that it is “deeply concerned” by the ongoing evictions and home demolition in East Jerusalem. Though officials are now working with Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf countries to end the violence, the modest level of engagement has delivered an implicit message: Can’t you see we’re working on infrastructure?

In its first few months in office, the Biden administration began to slowly roll out a new policy towards Israel and Palestine. The measured pace was itself telling, for the administration has been relentlessly focused on what is most pressing—addressing the pandemic and the accompanying economic crisis. And here, as elsewhere, former President Donald Trump’s blithe abandonment of longstanding American policy gave President Joe Biden’s skeletal staff of Middle East officials plenty of unraveling and restitching to do. In a policy memo drawn up in February and titled: “The US-Palestinian Reset and the Path Forward,” officials suggested reattaching the “connective tissue” destroyed in recent years, reaffirming a two-state solution and restoring funding to Palestinians.

Officials thought they had plenty of time. They were wrong: Violence has once again exploded in the region, in ways both sickeningly familiar and frighteningly new. This time it was Jewish settlers and the Israeli government who first upset a very brittle status quo, by threatening to evict Palestinians from a disputed neighborhood in occupied East Jerusalem and by attacking Palestinians gathered at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem and then at the Al-Aqsa Mosque after Friday prayers. Palestinians responded with provocations of their own and then Hamas began firing rockets into Israel with the goal of terrorizing civilians. Israel has responded with airstrikes and now ground troops. War, in the peculiar and almost ritualistic form it takes in the region, has broken out for the first time since 2014.

The Biden administration, caught unawares, has responded in time-worn fashion, publicly reassuring Israel of steadfast support while stating that it is “deeply concerned” by the ongoing evictions and home demolition in East Jerusalem. Though officials are now working with Egypt, Jordan, and the Gulf countries to end the violence, the modest level of engagement has delivered an implicit message: Can’t you see we’re working on infrastructure?

There is an emerging pattern here. As I wrote recently about refugee policy, this administration has thoughtful, enlightened policy on almost everything but is not about to let it get in the way of the chief business at hand. Just as the administration’s panicked initial response to an unexpected crisis at the border was to violate its own principles by refusing to admit refugees, so its reflex in the face of a sudden outbreak of hostilities in the Middle East was to put aside its commitment to more just outcomes for Palestinians. Nor is it a coincidence that in both cases the administration chose not to brave political headwinds. In the case of the refugees, the administration saw its error and reversed course. It’s still early days in this latest Gaza war/intifada/insurrection.

The war with Gaza will presumably end, as it has in the past, with both sides having inflicted so much suffering on the other—though with Israel having inflicted vastly more—that both can declare victory and call it a day. But that may not change the conflict inside Israel, which for the first time pits Jewish against Arab citizens. Coupled with the rising tensions in East Jerusalem, the very personal violence in Israeli cities could radicalize both sides and deepen polarization. The current wave of violence, after all, began with right-wing Jews mobs marching through East Jerusalem shouting, “Death to the Arabs!”

It’s not at all unimaginable that an increasingly nationalistic Israeli state could formalize Arabs’ second-class status in the way that Prime Minister Narendra Modi has done to Indian Muslims. Though Human Rights Watch has been harshly described for accusing Israel in a recent report of committing the crime of apartheid in the occupied territories, in a poll taken in February an overwhelming majority of American scholars of the Middle East described the current situation in the West Bank and Gaza as “a one-state reality akin to apartheid.” That’s the status quo. Arabs living in Israel have a vastly better life than those in the territories, but they, too, may have lost patience with their second-class status.

And so the question of what outsiders can do once the violence does end has a new urgency. Here, too, ritual has ruled in the past: American diplomats call for an end to hostilities so that the so-called peace process can resume, and then one futile meeting follows another. Israel has spent decades producing “facts on the ground”—in the form of settlements, walls, critical infrastructure—that make a two-state solution logistically and politically impossible. In any case, neither Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu nor Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has been prepared to make the very painful concessions required for a two-state solution. Nevertheless, as regional analyst Nathan Thrall noted in a landmark 2014 piece, “A decent chance of success has never been a prerequisite” for the peace process.” Negotiation, Thrall wrote, “offers its own rewards, quite apart from its ostensible purposes.” One of those rewards is reducing the pressure for actual reforms to improve the lives of Palestinians.

The peace process charade came to an end with Trump, who promised to solve the insoluble only to end up promulgating a formula that effectively eliminated a Palestinian state or even a negotiating role for the Palestinians. Trump was the first American president to inter the two-state solution. Last summer a Biden campaign adviser suggested to me that Biden, too, might accept the inevitable, though he would do so in order to focus on improving the lot of Palestinians rather than to marginalize them. In fact, Biden has publicly embraced a two-state solution, as does the State Department policy memo; he has been a passionate supporter of Israel for decades. But Biden watched two secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and John Kerry, fail at Middle East peace, and he has zero appetite for martyrdom. The word around the White House is, “We’re not going for a Nobel Peace Prize here.”

Publicly committing yourself to a two-state solution while devoting your actual efforts to improving the condition of Palestinians is an entirely defensible strategy. But how? The Administration has already pledged $235 million to the Palestinians through the U.N. Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) and direct grants. Biden hopes to restore the Palestinian mission in Washington and the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, both eliminated under Trump—but the first would require Congressional approval, and the second, Israeli approval. The Department of State memo also apparently suggested opening a consulate in the Palestinian territories.

Those are worthwhile, but modest measures. One more substantive approach, suggested by Brian Katulis, a Middle East expert at the Center for American Progress, is to focus on economic development, pressing Israel to provide more reliable water and electricity in the West Bank and Gaza and to offer building permits in West Bank settlements that would enable the growth of new businesses. Katulis also notes that the Arab states that have signed the “Abraham Accords” pledging “cooperation and dialogue” with Israel—the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco, Sudan—have “largely stood on the sidelines” during the conflict, but could, with careful American guidance, become key sources of economic and technical support for the Palestinians.

This would not, however, address the “apartheid” problem. Any attempt to do so would place the Biden administration on a collision course not only with Israel but with the U.S. Congress, where Netanyahu enjoys wider support than he does in Israel. For example, Daniel Levy, head of the Middle East Project (and author of a recent piece on the issue in FP) argues that Palestinians will not have a legitimate government capable of advancing their interests unless Mahmoud Abbas can be persuaded to work with Hamas, his archrival for his people’s loyalty. (Earlier this month Abbas called off long-planned elections out of fear he would lose.) Levy is absolutely right about the need to bring Hamas inside the governing tent. Even if Biden agrees—which he may not—blessing such a union would violate his no-martyrdom rule. He may be able to live without Netanyahu, but he can’t live without Chuck Schumer.

Where, then, is the line between “very hard” and “don’t bother”? Whatever Biden decides to do, he will have to work through the Abrahamic countries as well as Egypt and Jordan and perhaps Qatar, each of which has various degrees of leverage both with Israel and with the Palestinians. Among his goals should be ending the crushing blockade in Gaza, freeing up travel within the West Bank, ending eviction and demolition, strengthening Palestinian self-governance, addressing the grievances of Israeli Arabs, and cracking down on violence by right-wing groups, some of whom belong to Netanyahu’s own governing coalition.

Any of these goals would have been very hard to reach even during the more settled moment of Trump’s tenure; now, in the aftermath of Hamas attacks on Israeli cities and in the midst of an interminable political struggle inside Israel, it looks nigh impossible. There will be an overwhelming temptation to say, “This is not what we have in mind by ‘a foreign policy for the middle class.’” But as former President Barack Obama learned to his vast chagrin, walking away from the Middle East is not an option. The tension between rising Jewish nationalism and an increasingly restive Arab population both inside the country and in the Territories may no longer be sustainable. Biden has been carefully hoarding his political capital; he may have to spend some where he least wants to.

James Traub is a columnist at Foreign Policy, nonresident fellow at New York University’s Center on International Cooperation, and author of the book What Was Liberalism? The Past, Present and Promise of A Noble Idea.

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