Voice

Biden’s Democracy Agenda Faces First Big Test in Gaza

To break the cycle of violence, the United States could try to make both Israel and Palestine more responsive democracies.

By , a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service.
Biden delivers a speech on Trump's foreign policy.
Then-Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Trump administration’s foreign policy in New York City on Jan. 7, 2020. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“We are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict,” wrote former U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner two months ago in the Wall Street Journal. Kushner said the Abraham Accords, a series of peace agreements he helped negotiate between Israel and several Arab states, “exposed the conflict as nothing more than a real-estate dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.”

His victory lap might have been a tad premature. Since May 10, more than 200 people have been killed in the latest conflict between Israel and Palestine, which has seen Hamas fire a blizzard of rockets at Israel and Israel level much of the Gaza Strip. The two sides might reach a cease-fire as early as Thursday—after Israel has degraded Hamas’s arsenal and inflicted all the damage it wants—but that won’t make much of a difference to the underlying problems defining this Groundhog Day scenario.

Saying the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been less clueless than what came before is clearing a low bar. But diplomats in the region view the United States’ diplomacy during the latest conflict in Gaza as feckless, saying the administration’s role—while “supportive”—has been “minimal.” U.S. President Joe Biden’s declaration earlier this week that he “supports a cease-fire” without explicitly calling for one—let alone spearheading a diplomatic campaign to get one—was viewed by Israel as nothing more than a green light to finish the job as quickly as possible. Even Biden’s admonition to Israeli leaders on Wednesday only urged de-escalation as a “path” to a cease-fire.

“We are witnessing the last vestiges of what has been known as the Arab-Israeli conflict,” wrote former U.S. President Donald Trump’s son-in-law Jared Kushner two months ago in the Wall Street Journal. Kushner said the Abraham Accords, a series of peace agreements he helped negotiate between Israel and several Arab states, “exposed the conflict as nothing more than a real-estate dispute between Israelis and Palestinians.”

His victory lap might have been a tad premature. Since May 10, more than 200 people have been killed in the latest conflict between Israel and Palestine, which has seen Hamas fire a blizzard of rockets at Israel and Israel level much of the Gaza Strip. The two sides might reach a cease-fire as early as Thursday—after Israel has degraded Hamas’s arsenal and inflicted all the damage it wants—but that won’t make much of a difference to the underlying problems defining this Groundhog Day scenario.

Saying the Biden administration’s Middle East policy has been less clueless than what came before is clearing a low bar. But diplomats in the region view the United States’ diplomacy during the latest conflict in Gaza as feckless, saying the administration’s role—while “supportive”—has been “minimal.” U.S. President Joe Biden’s declaration earlier this week that he “supports a cease-fire” without explicitly calling for one—let alone spearheading a diplomatic campaign to get one—was viewed by Israel as nothing more than a green light to finish the job as quickly as possible. Even Biden’s admonition to Israeli leaders on Wednesday only urged de-escalation as a “path” to a cease-fire.

Meanwhile, Hady Amir, the U.S. envoy dispatched to the region, is a capable, well-meaning diplomat with a deep knowledge of the conflict, but he has been given little authority and has the impossible task of representing a government that has no serious policy vision for the problem at hand.

The administration fell back on the same default position that has failed so many times before. 

Part of that is due to limited bandwidth. As the Biden administration tries to get the pandemic fully under control, restore the economy’s health, and engage in strategic competition with China, it has made clear the Israeli-Palestinian issue would not be a priority in its first 100 days. Thus, it was unprepared and understaffed to deal with the crisis; the White House has yet to nominate an ambassador to Israel. But part of that is due to the administration’s overarching goal of washing its hands of the Middle East writ large and turning to the defining showdown in the Pacific. With no particular interest in the issue and no plan, the administration fell back on the same default position that has failed so many times before.

However, it was clear to anyone following the region over the past few months that violence was inevitable. Palestinian National Authority Mahmoud Abbas, now in his 16th year of a four-year term, piled up the kindling. Abbas, the leader of Fatah, which rules in the West Bank, called Palestinian elections earlier this year only to cancel them later, blaming Israel for uncertainty about whether the vote could take place in East Jerusalem. But the cancelation was expected as it was pretty clear his bitter rivals Hamas, which dominates Gaza, stood to benefit in the election.

Then, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu lit the spark. Driven to ensure his political survival, he joined forces with extreme right-wing parties in the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, who stoked their followers to attack Palestinians in Jerusalem’s Old City and attempt to evict Palestinians from their homes in the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem to make way for Jewish settlers. Near the end of Ramadan, Israeli police further ignited Palestinian anger by blocking access to the compound known to Muslims as the Haram al-Sharif (Jews call it the Temple Mount) and firing stun grenades into al-Aqsa mosque, the third holiest site in Islam, while Palestinians worshipped.

A cynic might say Netanyahu created a crisis to forestall the establishment of a government that would threaten his premiership, which is exactly how it played out. Before the crisis, a coalition government was poised to lead a change in government. Now, Netanyahu is politically viable in a way he wasn’t 10 days ago. And Abbas is weaker than he was 10 days ago: Hamas, knowing full well the wrath of the Israeli reaction, fanned the flames by exploiting Israel’s heavy-handed crackdown to launch another attack, a bid to undermine Abbas and show it can best respond to Palestinian frustrations.

It’s easy to see how the movie ends: a de-facto cease-fire within the next few days—after Israel has significantly degraded Hamas’s arsenal but not before civilians on both sides (exponentially higher on the Palestinian side) endure more suffering. Israel knows it will not defeat or even deliver a strategic blow to Hamas, but it’s not trying to. From its point of view, Israel bought seven years of relative peace after the last major conflict in Gaza in 2014 and believes another extended period of quiet is a modest—yet achievable—goal.

But this time may be different. Palestinians across Israel and the West Bank have gone on a general strike in protest while thousands of people have taken to the streets in Ramallah, Nablus, Bethlehem, Hebron, and other towns, sparking clashes with Israeli forces. They are no longer just demanding an end to the latest round of violence—in a rare sign of collective protest, they are trying to change something fundamental: their status as second-class citizens.

Now is the time for the United States to stop dancing around the misery Palestinians face under Israeli occupation.

Inside Israel, unprecedented levels of violence between Jews and Arabs have torn the delicate fabric of coexistence in so-called “mixed cities.” Such high levels of tension are simply not sustainable.

That doesn’t mean the United States should grope after yet another comprehensive peace deal, for which there is no appetite and no climate for success. But the United States can and should pivot from its policy default settings, which have fueled anti-democratic behavior by both the Israelis and Palestinians. Washington must take tangible steps to improve the situation on the ground for the most vulnerable citizens threatened by the conflict and come up with new policies that change the balance of power, safeguard Israeli security, and address long-neglected Palestinian rights.

When it comes to Palestinians, now is the time for the United States to stop dancing around the misery they face under Israeli occupation. The Biden administration has started rebuilding its relationships and assistance after years of abandon under Trump, who moved the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, cut aid to Palestinians, and closed the Palestinian representative office in Washington. Those efforts need to be put on steroids to improve living conditions for Palestinians. In the West Bank, that means the freedom to live, work, and travel without threat of arbitrary detention or displacement from their homes. In Gaza, where more than 2 million Palestinians have been cut off from the rest of the Palestinian territories and the world for more than a decade, the United States needs to address the dire human rights situation there by pushing for a permanent end to the blockade and the movement of people and goods out of the enclave. Together, such an effort would go a long way toward giving Palestinians the space to breathe, hope, and address their political future.

But bulldozers and blockades aren’t the only threats to Palestinians. For years, they’ve suffered from corrupt, dysfunctional leadership. Abbas rules by presidential decree and has refused to hold elections since 2006. The Palestinians’ fractured leadership, with Fatah ruling in the West Bank and Hamas in Gaza, has failed to deliver. As part of a beefed-up engagement, the United States should again stress the need for Palestinian reform as it did with some success during the George W. Bush administration. That includes tackling corruption, improving transparency, and putting an end to inciting and incentivizing violence against Israelis. Washington should encourage Palestinian elections and political reconciliation between Hamas and Fatah. That could pave the way for an end to the separation of Gaza from the rest of the occupied territories in favor of a unified Palestinian government that could include Hamas, conditioned on Hamas’s respect for international law and commitment to cease violence against Israeli civilians. That’s a big “if,” but it’s more likely with reform efforts under way.

But crucially, at the same time, the United States must also use its leverage over Israel—security assistance to the tune of $4 billion a year—instead of writing a blank check. Washington needs to hold Israel to the same human rights standards it applies to other U.S. allies. It needs to end the impunity that has enabled discriminatory policies toward Palestinians and made Palestinian governance in the occupied territories more difficult. In the near term, the United States should push Israel to guarantee equal protection under the law for all its citizens, including canceling home evictions in Sheikh Jarrah and reining in Israeli extremists.

Washington needs to hold Israel to the same human rights standards it applies to other U.S. allies.

And with the United States keeping one eye on Asia, there are fresh opportunities to ease the burden on preoccupied U.S. diplomats by internationalizing the effort. One legacy of Kushner’s dilettante diplomacy is there are more avenues to improve the quality of life and security for both Israelis and Palestinians if there is active diplomatic, economic, and military engagement. Egypt, Jordan, Qatar, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates—all of which have their own relationships with Israel, the Palestinian National Authority, and Hamas—can complement these efforts. So can Saudi Arabia, which has gradually improved its relations with Israel but whose official comments during the latest crisis have struck a middle ground between criticizing Israel and criticizing Hamas.

The United Nations could also play a constructive role if it abandons its one-sided criticism of Israel in favor of a more balanced approach. After the 2014 Gaza War, Israel supported (though the Palestinians rejected) a far-reaching framework, drafted by the United States, to address the volatility in Gaza with a cease-fire, Israeli withdrawal, and an arms embargo. That would be followed by disarming Hamas, gradual reentry of the Palestinian National Authority, and reconstruction of Gaza—all guaranteed by the United Nations. With the United Arab Emirates—the first nation to reach a peace deal last year with Israel as part of the Abraham Accords—taking the Arab seat on the Security Council next year, it could present new opportunities to work creatively with an Israeli government.

But such transformative change demands high-level engagement—not, perhaps, Kissinger-style shuttle diplomacy. It needs a point person, empowered by Biden, to engage in the patient work of diplomacy with all parties and partners in the region. Even that may be more political capital than the Biden administration is willing or able to expend.

With casualties in Gaza mounting, videos of destruction and displacement dominating television screens, and anti-Israel protests spreading across the United States, Biden has already had to ratchet up, in a small way, U.S. efforts to end the violence. But Biden finds himself caught—not just by a reflexively pro-Israel Republican Party but also torn between pro-Israel Democrats and a new breed of high-profile progressives who are pushing increasingly for the United States to take concrete actions to end the conflict and get tougher with Israel.

Biden’s visit to Dearborn, Michigan on Tuesday, home to one of the largest Arab American populations in the United States, started with an angry confrontation by Michigan Rep. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian American; hundreds of protesters later harangued the president at his visit to a Ford factory.

Biden may be betting, like Israel, that once this recent violence is over, an occasional flare-up is something he can live with. But heightened anger and violence between Jews and Arabs in Israel and the Palestinian territories as well as the growing protest movement in the United States—a possible outgrowth of the protest movement for racial justice last summer—suggest a deeper crisis.

Biden has made a push for democracy and commitment to U.S. values of dignity and human rights one of the cornerstones of his efforts to refurbish the United States’ reputation after the carnage of the Trump administration. If Biden truly wants to walk the walk, helping both Israelis and Palestinians become better democracies, more responsive to their people, and less inclined to start violence would be a great place to start.

Elise Labott is a columnist at Foreign Policy and an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service. As a correspondent for CNN for two decades, she covered seven secretaries of state and reported from more than 80 countries. Twitter: @EliseLabott

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