What does Biden mean for us in Israel-Palestine?

- by Alexander Jones - 
 
At the time of writing, Joe Biden has been declared the winner of the recent US election, but President Trump is yet to concede. Who knows how long this will go on, and even in a normal transition Biden won't take office until January 2021. Nevertheless, it seems a fair time to predict what a Biden White House will mean for us in Israel-Palestine. During the election, and indeed since, Biden has said a lot about what he will and won't do in the Middle East but it remains to be seen how much of this will be possible. Join us for some crystal ball gazing!
 
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The first thing to point out is that although it now seems certain a Democrat will be President for the next four years, the race for House and Senate control is not so obvious. There is a good chance that things here will be split, so getting any major legislation passed will be an on-going challenge. The sharp divisions in American politics were never so apparent as in this election, and the President-elect will have a real job on his hands to bring people back together. The Democratic party had the opportunity to counter the Trumpian swing of the pendulum to the right with a really progressive candidate like Bernie Sanders, but instead chose to toe the line and nominate the more centrist Biden. This should be the first clue that we shouldn't expect anything too radical from a Biden administration.
 
Biden will have a bridge building advantage due to his unparalleled experience in Washington. With 50 years on the Hill he has contacts everywhere, and is likely to have more support among Republicans and on conservative issues than Trump did with Democrats and on liberal ones. 

Over the years Biden has generally been seen as a friend to the Israel lobby. AIPAC have been working successfully for decades to make military support for Israel a non-partisan issue and it would be foolish to think that just because Trump was in many ways their dream leader, they shut the door on the Democratic establishment during his Presidency. Among the Palestinian lobby, anything different from the disastrous past four years will be welcome, so in many ways Biden does have a unique opportunity. Both sides will be cautiously optimistic about what his leadership can offer them.
 
We could start by asking how much of Trump's work will Biden be able to undo? To quote the founder of the Arab-American Institute, Jim Zogby, at a recent online event, "it's easier to be a bull in a china shop and smash everything up, than to be the owner trying to put it all back together". But as Lara Friedman, President of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, quipped in reply, "but we also shouldn't forget that there was some pretty crappy china in that shop to begin with". 

So let's explore how Trump became the preferred candidate for 70% of Israelis, riled the Palestine Authority so much that they cut off all contact, and see what Biden may do to successfully manage these relationships.
 
 Jerusalem
Relocation of US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem DSC0557 (28239099728).jpg
New US Embassy, in the Jerusalem neighbourhood of Talpiot
 
The most obvious provocation of the Trump era was the decision to move the Embassy to Jerusalem and recognise the city as Israel's capital. Palestinians will never un-feel the psychology trauma this caused, and it's almost as impossible to un-do the physical act of the move. The new building in Jerusalem has already been built and much of the Embassy's work now takes place there. The US Consulate in East Jerusalem, which managed American-Palestinian relations, has been closed. Furthermore, as a Delaware Senator Biden voted for the 1995 Jerusalem Embassy Act in Congress (only enacted years later by Trump), so don't expect any change there.
 
Funding
 
Another significant Trump change was his funding cut - to zero - for the Palestinian Authority, USAID and UNRWA. In the Obama years the US was among these institutions' biggest donors. It would be relatively easy for Biden to reinstate funding, and if you're among the tens of thousands of UNRWA employees which the UN say they are unable to pay after this month, you may be able to breathe a cautious sigh of relief. This should go some way to restoring the US reputation in Palestine, but it is unrealistic to imagine America will be seen as a neutral peace broker any time soon.
 
Perhaps how things were under Obama is the best place to look for clues as to how the Biden administration will approach the Middle East. Biden, after all, was the number two man for those eight years so it's fair to assume things will be similar. That's the previously mentioned 'crappy china'. One of the most striking Middle East policy differences between Obama and Trump revolved around the Iran nuclear deal.
 
Iran
 
The "Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action" (JCPOA) was designed to give the US and other powers a better understanding of Iran's nuclear programme by allowing inspectors in. It gave Iran a pathway to nuclear power but was supposed to stop Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. It was wildly unpopular in Israel and unceremoniously scrapped by Trump, leaving European signatories to prop it up alone ever since. Predictions are rife as to how Biden will approach this issue with most analysts claiming he will keep campaign trail promises by attempting to revive the JCPOA and reenter it - in some form. It would be relatively easy to remove some Trump-era sanctions on Iran but rebooting the JCPOA in its original format would be much more difficult. More likely is for Biden to push for some kind of new or interim agreement. 
 
On the Iranian side, however, this looms as a lose-lose prospect. Many hardliners in Iran felt the original deal already involved too many sacrifices, and returning to what would inevitably be a worse arrangement would be disadvantageous. The current status quo, created by Trump, in many ways gave Tehran the perfect scenario - they showed the world they were willing to compromise, but can now pursue any policy they choose. Only the thorny issue of sanctions remains. It seems therefore that this is where we can expect some progress, especially when we look at a collapsing Iranian economy which was also hit hard by COVID. But loosening sanctions and allowing Iran's nuclear programme free reign does nothing to assuage legitimate Israeli defence concerns. 
 
Settlements
 
The other notable step Obama took regarding Middle East issues was one of his final acts in charge - the US abstention on UN Security Council Resolution 2334. This condemned Israeli settlement building in strong, unambiguous terms, and was unanimously approved by all other 14 members. Of course, it hasn't done anything to actually stop settlement building in the Trump years since, and the fact that we are even talking about a meager abstention speaks volumes, but it is possible we may see more of this kind of thing from Biden. There was a real sense of urgency among settlement leaders and the government of Netanyahu in recent months as they sensed their historic opportunity for settlement expansion and even official annexation might be short lived. After the release of Trump's 'Deal of the Century' peace plan, many right-wingers in Israel encouraged Netanyahu to act before the window shut. There was brief talk of annexing the Jordan Valley, settlement blocs, or even all of the West Bank's Area C, but thanks to widespread opposition from the Israeli public and what appeared to be cold feet from the White House, this never happened. With Trump's defeat, this possibility seems to have permanently disappeared. Settlement building remains a key bone of contention for Palestinian negotiators but shows no sign of slowing down, even if formal annexation is off the table.
 
Normalisation
 
How then will Biden approach the admittedly impressive work Trump's team has done securing normalisation agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan? Trump promised before the election that "five, but really probably nine or ten" more Arab countries would normalise relations with Israel and even went one step further by saying that Saudi Arabia was among them. Let's be clear, Israel's deals with Gulf Countries are not peace deals (as some have called them) because there has never been war between them. Rather they are arms deals, designed to transfer weapons to authoritarian leaders and further isolate Iran. But it will be fascinating to see whether the public normalisation trend continues without Trump at the helm.

Israelis seem genuinely thrilled by the prospect of ties with the Gulf. There is much more public interest in travel, trade and diplomacy with Dubai then there ever has been with Jordan or Egypt (the only other two Arab countries who recognise Israel). But whether Biden can actually add Saudi Arabia to the list may depend much more on how much of Trump's pre-election bluster was, well, bluster, than on what policy Biden's team pursues.
 
Saudi normalisation would represent a seismic shift in the Israeli-Palestinian relationship. In 2002, the Saudis released the Arab Peace Initiative, promising Israel recognition from, and normalised ties with, the entire Arab League in exchange for accepting a two-state solution. This seemed to be the final carrot the Arab world could offer Israel and for nearly 20 years it was arguably the Palestinians' best negotiating tool. That three countries broke rank was insulting enough to the Palestinians, who justifiably felt abandoned. But if Saudi Arabia, the author of the Initiative, were to normalise, it would be a truly devastating blow. If Trump was telling the truth (a big if!) and an announcement was imminent, then thousands of hours of behind the scenes work have already been put in and ground breaking compromises already reached. It seems unlikely that Biden's election could change anything either way. 
 
Where Biden does have new-found leverage is with precisely these normalising countries. Part of their face-saving rhetoric was that it was all done in order to block Israeli annexation and help the Palestinians achieve statehood. Much of this is in writing, so the US could and should demand they leverage these important newly official ties with Israel towards making concrete achievements. Perhaps the Gulf Sheiks can have better luck than American Presidents when it comes to stopping Israeli building across the Green Line? Unlikely, but this is what needs to be demanded of them in exchange for their F35 stealth fighter jets.
 
What else could change?
 
Erakat's funeral yesterday in Jericho
With the death this week of Saeb Erakat, the senior Palestinian negotiator at all major peace conferences since (and including) Oslo, we are reminded that even the most long-lasting politicians don't stick around forever. Joe Biden is already older than the oldest ever US President at 75, while PA head Mahmoud Abbas is now 85. Netanyahu faces almost daily protests alongside a collapsing government (coalition ally and defence minster Benny Gantz is threatening to withhold his party's budget approval), corruption charges and rising coronavirus cases. There is a very high probability that one, two or three of these men won't be here in four years' time. 
 
COVID means Americans, Israelis and Palestinians alike will all experience unprecedented public health and economic challenges. It may well be that foreign policy concerns in general are forced to take a back seat during Biden's presidency as he battles such overwhelming crises. And all of this will likely happen alongside catastrophic environmental degradation and during the hottest four years in living memory. Should be an interesting period!

In the meantime, we are doggedly doing our best to educate, to build a shared society, and promote democratic values and human rights. You can join us for online tours every day to see how these macro issues effect daily life on the ground.

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