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Biden’s Israel-Palestine Policy: The Devil is in the Details

Published in Jewish Journal

The new administration under President-elect Joe Biden and his Secretary of State, Tony Blinken, will be required to appoint a new ambassador to Israel during their first term in office. They will therefore need to revisit quickly some of the working assumptions of U.S. policies vis-à-vis Israel and the Palestinians, in light of the dramatic changes initiated under the Trump administration.

The diplomatic agenda of the new administration will be driven by the vision of a permanent settlement based on the model of a two-state solution. Yet, Biden and Blinken may soon realize that a return to the Obama strategic framework will lead to a dead end. The Obama administration’s diplomatic agenda adopted the “package approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, namely, the pursuit of one comprehensive agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, which settles all historical issues and defines Israeli-Palestinian relations in a permanent status. This approach had virtually no chance of success. It will fail again if put forth, due to the Palestinians’ internal political crisis and the internal disagreements in Israel regarding the permanent status, as well as the significant gaps between Israelis and Palestinians concerning numerous issues, such as the status of refugees and Hamas’ ongoing control of the Gaza Strip.

BIDEN AND BLINKEN MAY SOON REALIZE THAT A RETURN TO THE OBAMA STRATEGIC FRAMEWORK WILL LEAD TO A DEAD END.

A seemingly inevitable and realistic conclusion will focus on the need to support Palestinian statehood in the West Bank, as well as improve Palestinian quality of life through economic and humanitarian assistance, while bypassing several “unresolvable” historical issues, first and foremost the status of Palestinian refugees. This conclusion was one of the main reasons that brought the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, to normalize their relations with Israel before a permanent settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is reached.

The new administration is expected to adopt policies on a number of issues opposite to Trump’s approach, including reversing Trump’s decisions to close the Palestinian office in Washington and the American consulate for the Palestinians, as well as to renew humanitarian aid. If the new administration will indeed adopt the aforementioned working assumptions – embracing a two-state vision, while focusing on Palestinian state-building – these seemingly technical matters could have significant implications on America’s ability to promote an effective policy.

President Trump moved the American embassy to Jerusalem, and ended the unacceptable reality to most Israelis that Israel’s closest ally would not accord full diplomatic recognition to Israel’s capital. At the same time, perhaps unwittingly, Trump has changed the mandate of the US Embassy in Jerusalem to de-facto reflect the notion of a ‘One-State Solution’. This is because the US Consulate in Jerusalem, which used to be designated to the Palestinian Authority, was downgraded into ‘The Palestinian Affairs Unit’ in the Embassy to Israel. Namely, the US diplomatic mission in Israel currently expresses the viewpoint that Israel and the PA are one, unified political unit. Clearly, this structure is at odds with the new administration’s agenda driven by a vision of a two-state solution.

The Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington will likely also be reopened by the new administration. Biden and Blinken should take the opportunity to grant the keys of this office to the Palestinian Authority, and not the PLO, as was the case when it was closed by Trump. The Palestinian Authority was established by agreements signed between Israel and the PLO, and was intended to represent the Palestinian residents of the West Bank and Gaza Strip during an interim period that was supposed to end more than a decade ago. Allowing the Palestinian Authority to run the Washington office will reflect that it is the platform for Palestinian statehood and represents the residents of the West Bank and Gaza, while the PLO is the platform for the entire Palestinian people, including Palestinian refugees and citizens of other countries throughout the Middle East. The distinction between the PLO and PA has practical, symbolic, and legal meanings, which may constitute the difference between the likely continuation of the political gridlock and the possibility of reaching at least an interim or partial agreement that focuses on Palestinian statehood.

THE PALESTINIAN DIPLOMATIC MISSION IN WASHINGTON WILL LIKELY ALSO BE REOPENED BY THE NEW ADMINISTRATION. BIDEN AND BLINKEN SHOULD TAKE THE OPPORTUNITY TO GRANT THE KEYS OF THIS OFFICE TO THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITY, AND NOT THE PLO, AS WAS THE CASE WHEN IT WAS CLOSED BY TRUMP.

It is likely that the new administration will renew the financial support for UNRWA, the UN agency that is supposed to support Palestinian refugees, after the Trump administration ceased supporting it financially. However, the renewal of aid to UNWRA will be a major step backwards in efforts to resolve the refugee issue. In addition to the humanitarian assistance that the agency provides, it also assumes responsibility for dealing with Palestinian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria, as well as those under the PA’s authority. The agency preserves the unique status of refugees even after the first generation, a unique phenomenon in international law. Moreover, UNWRA’s textbooks demonstrate incitement against Israel and even include anti-Semitic content. Instead, the US should consider funneling its resources into a comprehensive plan for the gradual and orderly transfer of power from the UNWRA to the PA, towards the end of its presence in the West Bank and Gaza. This step could be accompanied by an economic development program to improve the quality of life under the PA’s authority and by calling on host countries to grant citizenship to Palestinian refugees.

It seems that the Biden administration’s willingness to be involved in the Middle East and the Israel-Palestinian conflict will be limited in light of America’s domestic struggles with COVID-19 and its economic repercussions. However, crucial decisions will be required early on regarding these aforementioned issues, and the administration must be prepared for them.

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