Argument

An expert's point of view on a current event.

Did Biden Break the Glass on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict?

Washington’s new focus on human rights could redefine the United States’ long-standing approach.

By , an adjunct professor at American University’s School of International Service and a columnist at Foreign Policy.
Biden delivers remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the White House in Washington on May 20. Anna Moneymaker/Getty Images

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, more than many others, is one where words carry heavy baggage. Each word is weaponized and politically charged, and a shift in wording can change history.

Which is why, for decades, successive U.S. presidents, except former U.S. President Donald Trump, have stuck to a predictable script. U.S. President Joe Biden, during the recent wave of violence between Israel and Hamas, was no different. Throughout the fighting, Biden conveyed his “unwavering support for Israel’s security and for Israel’s legitimate right to defend itself and its people while protecting civilians.” But when it came time to talk about the cease-fire between the two parties, Biden also stressed Israelis and Palestinians deserve “equal measures of freedom, prosperity, and democracy.” It’s a phrase that has been taken up and repeated by other top administration officials, including U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who added and underlined the word “dignity.”

At face value, none of that sounds out of the ordinary. Trump aside, the United States has paid a lot of lip service to democratic values, freedom, and justice. Even regarding the Israel-Palestine conflict, the United States has hinted at more freedom and dignity for Palestinians since former U.S. President George W. Bush developed the “Roadmap for Mideast peace,” and similar vows were part of Biden’s campaign platform for the 2020 election.

But if genuinely applied to U.S. policy, Biden’s seemingly subtle shift has the potential to break the glass on the United States’ long-standing approach to the conflict and toward Israel in particular. And it offers a textbook example of how Biden can walk his talk of centering foreign policy around democracy, human rights, and international law by applying those American values to the treatment of Palestinians.

The United States has pivoted from talking about Palestinian rights within a political context to treating them as having inalienable human rights.

For decades, the United States considered rights for Palestinians as something aspirational: a development that would come as part of having their own state after a comprehensive peace deal was made with Israel. Now, with the “two-state solution”—a Jewish Israel living alongside an independent Palestine—seemingly off the table for the foreseeable future, the United States has pivoted from talking about Palestinian rights within a political context to treating them as having inalienable human rights—a recognition no people should have to negotiate for at the bargaining table.

Even before the recent fighting, the Biden administration was considering a series of steps to reset relations with the Palestinians, which were in tatters after four years of Trump’s full-throated support for Israel, including moving the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem, greenlighting Israeli settlement expansion, closing the Palestinian National Authority office in Washington, and cutting off more than $200 million in humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians.

Had it not been for the latest round of violence, other U.S. measures beyond a limited resumption of aid to Palestinians would likely have been rolled out gradually and with little fanfare. The White House hoped to avoid being drawn back into the conflict so it could focus on other foreign-policy priorities like a strategic competition with China, an increasingly aggressive Russia, and resumption of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal. But the carnage in Gaza gave the reset a new urgency. Standing with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah after the cease-fire, Blinken announced the United States would reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem—which handles Palestinian affairs and was closed under Trump—and would send an additional $112 million in aid and development funding to the West Bank and Gaza, essentially restoring the Trump cuts.

Redoubled U.S. commitments and efforts to restore ties with Palestinians is a recognition that Palestinians living under Israeli occupation are more than just Hamas. The fragile truce may have ended the current wave of violence, but the conflict’s underlying issues, particularly the asymmetry between Israel and about 7 million Palestinians who lack basic rights, remain. The World Bank estimates Israel’s GDP averages about 15 times the GDP in the Palestinian territories. And if those inequities are left unaddressed, a return to fighting is certain.

This new emphasis on equality also reflects a sea change in U.S. public opinion and among many Democrats on Capitol Hill—even, for the first time, among some of Israel’s staunchest supporters. Lawmakers have been critical of Israel’s collective persecution of Palestinians and are increasingly uncomfortable with the United States’ role in underwriting their miserable living conditions, which some human rights advocates liken to apartheid, by essentially granting Israel impunity. Some lawmakers blame Trump’s embrace of long-time Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for emboldening Israel’s far-right extremists. (After a conflict-fueled hiatus, Netanyahu’s political rivals at last appear poised to knock him out of office.)

Until now, criticism like that was often conflated with charges of antisemitism. But more and more often, progressives—including many younger American Jews—view the Palestinian cause as a shared struggle for racial justice and equality. The protest movement against police brutality and systemic racism inside the United States is now spreading beyond U.S. borders.

Another thing that’s changing are calls to leverage U.S. aid to Israel.

For years, the Democratic Party has been dependent on the Israeli lobby and donors who support Israel. But a new poll from the Arab American Institute shows just over half of Democratic voters have a favorable view of Palestinians while only 46 percent have a favorable view of Israelis. And the divide is even larger when it comes to Israel’s use of force: 43 percent of Democrats said Israel used too much force, and only 16 percent said it was the appropriate amount. But it’s not just Democrats; the poll found nearly three-quarters of all Americans say Palestinians and Israelis are equal people who are entitled to equal rights, including 80 percent of Democrats and 67 percent of Republicans. This all suggests the shibboleth that “we are one with Israel” at any cost is fracturing, and criticism of Israeli policies is growing ever more acceptable. That helps explain why pro-Israel senators like Bob Menendez, a leading voice on foreign policy, could voice concern over the scale of Israel’s military action in Gaza while Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, another solid supporter of Israel, called for a cease-fire even before Biden did.

And another thing that’s changing are calls to leverage U.S. aid to Israel; progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders, who attempted to put a hold on military assistance, say providing Israel around $4 billion a year in annual military support without conditions offers Israel no incentive to uphold human rights. In the words of Sen. Elizabeth Warren, the failure to limit the use of U.S. military aid to Israel in the occupied territories is the “elephant in the room.”

Two pro-Israel lobby groups that previously opposed conditions on U.S. aid, J Street and Americans for Peace Now, are now supporting restrictions. Think tanks like the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace are calling on the United States to stop defending Israel in international forums and begin enforcing laws that would restrict aid to Israel for human rights violations.

It’s too early to call any of these ideas and shifts a new policy or to expect immediate change. Even during the recent fighting, Biden remained steadfast in his support of Israel’s air campaign in Gaza in response to Hamas rocket fire, with Washington repeatedly blocking United Nations efforts to back a cease-fire, despite mounting pressure from his own party and many U.S. allies.

But since both Biden and Blinken acknowledge they have neither the bandwidth nor a propitious climate for full-fledged peace negotiations like those in Madrid or Oslo, the administration at least seems ready to pluck the low-hanging fruit: improving the quality of Palestinian lives. In the near term, officials said, that means halting actions that will derail an ultimate peace deal, something Biden has already instructed the parties against.

On the Palestinian side, that means stopping incitement and acts of violence against Israel. For Israel, it would ultimately mean reducing the indignities of occupation. Palestinians are not citizens of the country where they live, rendering them powerless over the choices that rule their own lives and without a vote for the government that makes those choices. They have no due process against discrimination or detention of children. In Jerusalem and the West Bank, they face home evictions and demolitions as Israel subsidizes settlements and continues Jewish gentrification of Arab neighborhoods.

Biden is going to come under increased pressure to align his words with actions.

The administration has also pledged to increase economic development aid and rebuild Gaza. During Blinken’s recent visit, Netanyahu spoke of “building economic growth” in the West Bank. But for both Palestinian enclaves, true economic development and freedom of movement go hand in hand. Israel must be ready and willing to enable such growth by easing checkpoints, opening border crossings with Egypt and Jordan, allowing trade, easing building permits, and greenlighting the introduction of advanced technology like 5G mobile networks to facilitate information technology and electronic commerce. Israel’s legitimate security concerns can be managed with international support rather than exploited as an excuse for a status quo that fuels desperation.

Such an initiative would also pay concrete dividends by weakening Hamas if the United States can improve daily life for Palestinians in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank. Hamas was adept at seizing on weak leadership within the Palestinian National Authority and Israel’s provocations in Jerusalem to strengthen its hand as the defender of the Palestinian cause. A U.S.-backed advance toward equality could elevate Palestinian leaders who possess the moral authority that Abbas and Hamas lack.

More than half a century into the occupation, is the United States ready to use its unique leverage with Israel to finally address these issues? Biden is going to come under increased pressure to align his words with actions—but it remains to be seen how far he is willing to push Israelis when recent attacks against American Jews in the wake of the 11-day conflict could make this a slippery slope. But without a concerted U.S. effort to rebuild Gaza and develop the West Bank in ways that give Palestinians opportunities and hope for the future, the violence just seen will only be a harbinger of what’s to come.

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