Israel and Palestine—What Can the Biden Administration Do?

by December 2021
A third party is needed. Israeli settlers erect poles with the Star of David during a protest by Palestinians in the West Bank. Photo credit: REUTERS/Raneen Sawafta

On the eve of President Joe Biden’s entry to the White House, several think tanks in Washington published some detailed papers about his policy options in the Middle East. Their authors were media commentators, academicians, and former officials from the Clinton and Obama administrations. 

One of the most cited papers was published by the Center for a New American Security (CNAS) in December 2020. Authored by Ilan Goldenberg, Tamara Cofman Wittes, and Michael Koplow (the first two are now in the Biden Administration.), it was titled “A New U.S. Strategy for the Israeli–Palestinian conflict.” Its real title should have been “Since the Palestinian–Israeli problem is going to be very low on Biden’s agenda, what are the things that can be done to prevent explosions that may burden the administration with having to invest time and energy in that region?”

The main argument of this paper is to restore the pre-Trump era, return the PLO office in Washington, reinstate the American consulate (for the Palestinians) in Jerusalem, and return finances to the Palestinian Authority and UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency). The paper asserts that “in the current moment, negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians may not be fruitful” and suggests steps to keep open the option for the two-state solution. This paper became a self-fulfilling prophecy. This “hands off” policy, while repeating publicly the view of the Democrats about the main guidelines for the permanent agreement, became the official policy of the White House from January 20, 2021 until now.

President Biden knows the Middle East much better than most of his predecessors and has a very clear view about the way to solve the conflict, which corresponds closely to the Clinton Parameters of December 2000. He worries that in less than a year, his party may lose its current frail advantage in both chambers of the Congress, and in the coming months, he intends to invest time and energy to implement his ambitious domestic agenda. In foreign affairs, as expected, China will be in the focus of his efforts.

But no leader of the free world can pick only one or two issues and dedicate all efforts to them to the exclusion of all others. Eschewing the Middle East conflict is not an option. Although all of Biden’s predecessors in the last 50 years were advised not to touch this region, most of them found themselves very much involved in trying to find solutions for the tensions between Israel and its neighbors, and while some succeeded, most failed.

Less than five months after his inauguration, President Biden had to deal with the Israeli military campaign “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” the first violent confrontation between Israel and Hamas in the Gaza Strip during his term. The president found himself calling Benjamin Netanyahu, at the time Israel’s prime minister, the Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas, and other regional leaders, to try to achieve a ceasefire between the parties. It was a reminder for Biden that an arbitrary decision to avoid dealing with the Israeli–Palestinian issue, just because his predecessors had failed, was neither feasible nor realistic.

Putting things back in place isn’t as easy as uprooting them. Undoing the perceived wrongs of the Trump era while avoiding steps that may hamper a permanent solution seems nice on paper but totally detached from reality.

The formation of a new and surprising government in Israel, whose main common denominator was the wish to depose of Netanyahu, presented President Biden with a new dilemma. The new government, which was established in June this year, is currently led by Naftali Bennett, who is ideologically to the right while most of the coalition members are identified with the center-left. This, in turn, is a good news for the American administration; however, Bennett’s declarations regarding the Palestinian question pose difficulties for the Biden administration.

President Biden does not understand how this young (age 49) and intelligent Israeli Zionist leader can support Israel’s continued presence in the West Bank and oppose its partition, even though it means that Israel would lose its title as a Jewish and democratic state, as this territory will not have a Jewish majority. Biden does not understand why Bennett declares—contrary to most of his predecessors, including Netanyahu—that under no circumstances will he be ready to accept a Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, and why he is not ready to meet with President Abbas, whom Biden considers a man of peace.

Still, Biden is trying to cater to Bennett’s political needs, including the acceptance of the idea that no Palestinian state will be established in the current circumstances. He prefers to keep his criticism of the Israeli prime minister in the private channel between the two of them, but he knows that it will be very difficult for him to avoid tensions in the long run.

Biden is trying to implement the recommendations of the policy papers issued by the different Washington think tanks, but he finds it very difficult to do so. Putting things back in place isn’t as easy as uprooting them, such as reestablishing the PLO office in Washington or the American Consulate in East Jerusalem. The plan to undo the perceived wrongs of the Trump era and yet refrain from taking steps that may hamper the permanent solution seems nice on paper but totally detached from reality.

What will be his legacy? Prime Minister Naftali Bennett sits next to Yair Lapid at a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem. Photo credit: REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun

Prime Minister Bennett got his position as part of a rotation agreement and will hold it for two years. In August 2023 he will have to step down and hand over the premiership to Yair Lapid, the head of a centrist party and a supporter of the two-state solution. Bennett is unlikely to ever return as prime minister, as he heads a small religious-rightist party, which won only six seats in the Knesset in the last elections, and, according to some opinion polls, is not likely to cross the four-seat threshold in the next elections. Only by a miracle could he once again become the head of the government just by joining the coalition. Bennett, a high-tech millionaire, may decide to leave politics and get back to high-tech, once his political peak is behind him. In the meantime he wants to “reduce the conflict,” help the Palestinians economically, improve their daily lives, and build more housing units for Israelis in the occupied territories, to make it more difficult to establish a future Palestinian state. In that respect, Bennett is pushing the envelope vis-à-vis the Biden administration in the hope that the Americans will turn a blind eye to what is happening in the West Bank during his term.

But Bennett knows that this kind of behavior will not be his legacy. He knows that some prime ministers, including those who stayed in power for long—such as Yitzhak Shamir—left no mark on Israel’s history. Yet there have been cases of prime ministers who do leave their mark even in short periods of time, such as Pierre Mendes-France, who served as France’s prime minister only for 10 months but ended its military involvement in Vietnam, thus leaving a huge impression on France’s history. If Bennett is convinced to take a bold step toward peace, he could save Israel as a Jewish-Democratic state and secure his place in the Israeli Hall of Fame. 

At the age of 86, President Mahmud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is approaching the end of his political career. He has been considered the most prominent figure in the Palestinian peace camp, and he was the most courageous Palestinian who confronted Yasser Arafat during the Second Intifada and criticized him for allowing a return to armed struggle. Mahmud Abbas was my partner, behind the scenes, in the Oslo Process, and again my counterpart in the Beilin–Abu Mazen understandings for a possible permanent status agreement (1995). As a Palestinian nationalist, Abbas believes in the benefits of close relationship with Israel and is ready for compromises, as he has proven in his negotiations with top Israelis.

Abbas draws his legitimacy from the fact he is one of the founding fathers of Fatah (established in 1959). He was democratically elected as president in 2005 (by 62% of the voters), but since then there have been no new elections. The Palestinian Authority is far from being a success story, and clouds of corruption hover over it. Abbas himself is considered a weak leader (especially since the split between Fatah and Hamas led to the latter’s violent takeover of Gaza in July 2007). Nevertheless, the entire world recognizes him as the legitimate Palestinian leader, and any agreement he may sign, will be respected internationally. If an agreement is not signed in the near future, it may take years for his successor to acquire enough clout to make the compromises needed for achieving peace. 

Abbas may step down having naively tried to lead his people to peace with Israel and having failed. For him too, a “deus ex machina” initiative, which meets a substantial part of his demands, will be more than welcome, even if its full implementation will be achieved by his successors.

The hawkish background of Bennett and the weakness of Abbas create a situation that is unlikely to bring about regional initiatives. As a result, after conducting low profile consultations both with the Israeli and the Palestinian leaderships, it seems that a third party initiative is needed. The obvious third party is the US. The most realistic initiative is an Israeli–Palestinian confederation, which, as a matter of fact, was already offered in the UNGA Partition resolution 181, in 1947.

All parties badly need a solution, but no one is willing to initiate anything of substance. The Biden administration has to take the bull by its horns and put an innovative offer on the table.

The confederation should allow the Israelis who live today in the West Bank, and who wish to stay there, to remain there as Israeli citizens and as Palestinian permanent residents. The same number of Palestinian citizens should be invited to live in Israel with a similar status.

The evacuation of a large Israeli population is the main difficulty for any Israeli leader seeking to withdraw from the West Bank, and such an arrangement may facilitate the way to the two-state solution. While both sides will benefit from the high level of coordination in infrastructure, health, agriculture, they will mainly benefit economically and in the high level of security coordination.

The model for this confederation should be the European Union because it devoutly keeps the independence and the sovereignty of its members while developing its internal ties gradually, including the permeability of the borders. The Palestinian state should be established first, and only later—the confederation.

At the beginning, there will be no joint political institutions, but only coordinating bodies. There will be no joint leadership, parliament, or cabinet, and the two governments will have to decide whether or not they adopt the advice of the coordinating bodies. Later on, the high level government officials on both sides will meet to consider different proposals for the liberalization of the arrangements between the two parties.

Both sides need a border. The Palestinians deserve to fulfill their right of self determination and to have their independent state based on the 1967 line with equal land swaps; Israel needs a border if it wishes to remain a Jewish and democratic state. Any future border will be artificial, and its gradual permeability will be much more natural, provided it will not generate security threats. Both peoples have historic bonds to the whole area to the west of the Jordan River, and if the confederation is a success story, both sides will move freely in the Holy Land. This will minimize the frustrations that are expected on both sides if the partition is accompanied by high walls.

Raising the idea of a Palestinian–Israeli confederation could renew the need for a solution and return it to the political agenda. The one-state solution, which is regretfully becoming a reality as long as nothing else is happening, is devastating to both sides, and a unilateral withdrawal of Israel from the West Bank is only a last resort solution, if everything else fails. The Biden administration should be careful not to fall into the trap of the different “red herrings,” (like addressing the money sent to officials in Gaza, or the ways we can all deceive ourselves by reestablishing an American Consulate in Jerusalem without calling it a consulate). It has to take the bull by its horns and put an innovative offer on the table. All the parties need a solution badly. No one can really afford to wait, but none will initiate anything of substance. The next explosion is around the corner, and it can be prevented.

Yossi Beilin
Yossi Beilin is a former Knesset member, justice minister and deputy foreign minister. Among the policy achievements he contributed to are the 1993 Oslo Accords and the 2003 Geneva Initiative, as well as the Birthright program of heritage trips to Israel.
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