Will Biden Recognize the Moral Imperative to End the Occupation?

There isn’t a liberal alive anywhere on the planet who didn’t shudder at the prospect of four more years of a Donald Trump presidency and the havoc it would have wreaked not only in the United States but around the world. The level of enthusiasm about President-elect Joe Biden’s victory varies, but few would challenge the statement that it beats the alternative.

While the race for the Democratic nominee was in progress, Biden was far from my preferred candidate. Very much a wishy-washy liberal, Biden’s stand on the Israel-Palestine conflict is far too accommodating toward Israel to my liking. His opposition to using the word “occupation” in the Democratic platform was difficult to comprehend, given the traditional stance of Democratic administrations on the settlement enterprise, and the fact that the platform contains a statement against settlement expansion but not against settlement itself was not an encouraging sign. The platform’s position on Jerusalem was also worrisome, as it says the “undivided” 
city should remain the capital of Israel, although it adds that the future of Jerusalem should be determined in final-status negotiations. There’s a bit of a contradiction there, but we should remember that this is only the platform. Biden can certainly deviate from it once in power, although he reportedly had the final say on the draft submitted by the Platform Committee.

Renewed Engagement with the Palestinians

According to media reports, contacts between the Biden team and the Palestinian leadership are already taking place, ending the freeze declared by President Mahmoud Abbas in 2017 in reaction to the announced U.S. plans to close the PLO mission in Washington. Although the Palestinians have been criticized for cutting off communications with the United States, I believe they made the right decision at the time. There was no one home in Trump’s administration when it came to the rights of the Palestinians, and any engagement with it would have been seen as acquiescence to the blatantly one-sided policy pursued by Trump in regard to the conflict. Although Palestinian expectations of Biden may be low, the very fact that there is a willingness to listen and be heard marks a shift in the imbalance that marked the Trump years.

And, of course, Biden won’t just listen. Everyone is saying that he is considering three initial steps to improve the lot of the Palestinians in the Occupied Territory and bolster the stature of the Palestinian Authority in its diplomatic dealings. These include renewing aid, including funding for UNRWA and USAID operations in Palestine; reopening the PLO Mission in Washington; and reopening the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem as a direct channel to Ramallah. These would constitute important first steps, but they are far from sufficient.

Conflict Management Just Won’t Do

There is no question that Biden is inheriting a country riddled by division and ravaged by the devastating effects of COVID-19 on its economy and on the health of its citizens, so grappling with those domestic issues will understandably top his agenda. On the foreign policy front, contending with the Iranian nuclear program and the trade war with China are said to be his primary concerns. As for the Israel-Palestine conflict, all the pundits are saying that Biden will be reluctant to expend political capital on a new peace initiative whose chances of success are seen as minimal; however, conflict management, as opposed to conflict resolution, is not a luxury that Biden — or the world, for that matter — can afford.

There is no such thing as status quo when it comes to the occupation. Aside from the ideological factors driving settlement expansion, natural growth and the quest for cheap housing are increasing the settler population all the time, and as the number of settlers grows, so does infrastructure and industry and, of course, land expropriations. Meanwhile, with the passage of time and, to no small degree, deliberately warped discourse on the part of the Israeli government and intentional or unintended complicity on the part of the media, the Green Line is being obliterated from the public’s consciousness. As for the Palestinians, there is surely no need to explain the rising toll in economic hardship and human life that each day of occupation brings.

Getting the Sides to the Table

One of the arguments against launching a peace initiative that is being cited by many experts is the lack of readiness on both sides to reach an agreement at this time. The Palestinian leadership, they say, is stuck in the past and hasn’t developed a strategy that addresses the changed reality in the Middle East. I would contest this argument. The Palestinians’ adherence to the principle of land for peace, to their right to self-determination in a sovereign and viable state with East Jerusalem as its capital, and to a negotiated solution to the refugee issue is not intransigence or “old school”; it aligns with the principles of international law to which the U.S. is committed. Rather than call on the Palestinians to come up with something new — which amounts to a call for new concessions — Biden should support their position that the internationally agreed parameters must serve as the basis for negotiations. To reinforce this message, he should announce that the wretched “Peace to Prosperity” plan is dead and that the concept of “economic peace,” which was designed to lure the Palestinians into accepting economic gains at the expense of their right to self-determination, is no longer a part of U.S. policy. Furthermore, Biden could announce that the Trump declaration on Jerusalem is null and void and could demonstrate this by freezing the transfer of the U.S. ambassador’s residence to Jerusalem and by basing the U.S. Embassy Political Section in Tel Aviv.

The Israelis, they say, aren’t ready because they lack any incentive to negotiate an agreement that would involve territorial withdrawals. That, unfortunately, is not only true but is an understatement, as the Israeli government has actually raised a battle cry against the “Palestinian occupation” of Area C. On this front, however, there is much that Biden can do. First, he could declare that the United States accepts United Nations Security Council Resolution 2334 with all its components, including the illegality of Israeli settlement beyond the 1967 lines and the policy of differentiation between the state of Israel and the settlements in all dealings. Second, he could ensure that any financial aid to Israel is not expended beyond the Green Line. Third, he could recognize the state of Palestine now, creating parity of esteem between the sides before they enter the negotiations room and changing the balance of power so that the talks are not conducted between the conqueror and the vanquished. In fact, recognition was raised as a proposal by Ilan Goldenberg, who is said to be in line for a senior position in the Biden administration, should Israel have gone ahead with its plans to annex parts of the West Bank. If it was considered a legitimate move as a punitive measure, why not consider it as a positive gesture to boost the Palestinian public’s waning faith in diplomacy as the path to liberation? I would even like to see Biden ban the import of settlement products, end charity tax exemptions for U.S. citizens who invest in the settlements, and refuse visas to settlers, but I’m aware that hell would have to freeze over before that happened.

Applying Multilateralism and Restoring Moral Leadership

“What negotiations is she talking about?” you may ask. Well, if Biden takes even some of the aforementioned steps, he will have given the Palestinian leadership the boost it needs and the Israeli leadership the wakeup call it needs to get them back to the table. And Biden need not go it alone.

Having served as vice president during the dismal failure of then Secretary of State John Kerry’s peace mission, he is understandably gun-shy. Meanwhile, Europe is taking steps to assert its independence but remains reluctant to take the reins from the U.S. Now is the time for them to close ranks in a determined effort to get this conflict resolved once and all. Such a united stand would align with the principle of multilateralism which is said to shape Biden’s worldview.

If left unresolved, Israel’s encroachment on the Palestinian territory and the absence of a diplomatic horizon for the Palestinians may leave the two-state solution neither palatable to the Israelis nor realistic for the Palestinians by the end of Biden’s term. The options would then be apartheid or violence on a massive scale. The U.S., in partnership with Europe, could save us from that fate, but it must act quickly. The U.S. election cycle being what it is, the midterm elections will be approaching by the time Biden gets his feet wet, and the next presidential campaign will follow shortly after. Elections breed middle-of-the-road policies In order to win over the greatest number of potential voters, so any bold move on Biden’s part needs to happen fast. On his campaign website, Biden promised to restore America’s “moral leadership.” Let us hope that he recognizes the moral imperative to secure peace between our two peoples.