‘America is back’: Biden’s first 100 days on Israel and Palestine
Prepared by Ana Guimarães & Sarah Chaya Smith.
As President Joe Biden begins to make his mark on his first 100 days in office, we ask how his approach to foreign policy in the Middle East can be markedly different from his presidential predecessors by promoting policies that advance US diplomatic ambitions and role as a proclaimed peace-broker. In light of heavy criticism and disagreement within the international community regarding Trump’s policies in the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, all eyes are on how Biden will address the Conflict, with several Israeli diplomats and officials questioning the delayed reach-out to Israel.
The following policy brief outlines five key recommendations we note as integral to upholding Biden’s promise of a “diplomacy rooted in America’s most cherished values” with regard to the question of Palestine – inclusive of “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity”.
These actions are: 1) calling out the unequal COVID-19 vaccine distributions in Israel and Palestine, 2) improving diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authorities, 3) re-nominating a more pro-peace US ambassador to the UN, 4) reinstating UNRWA funding and 5) employing a tough approach on illegal settlements.
Despite the Trump administration implementing policies detrimental to peace in the region, the actions outlined in the following pages can help initiate a more peace-oriented foreign policy approach towards the Middle East, as well as increasing credibility for Biden’s claimed diplomatic-driven agenda.
What’s the issue?
Trump’s view of ‘diplomacy’
Over the past four years, Trump has been a much-loved friend to Israel and close ally of long time Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu. This has come with much controversy, not only due to Trump’s outright disregard for foreign policy precedent, but also in his role antagonising the Israeli-Palestinian peace process further.
Although Biden has already made numerous ‘u-turn’ policy decisions from Trump on climate change, immigration and COVID-19, we are yet to see if, how and to what extent Biden will choose to depart from Trump’s legacy in the Middle East. As Biden remains grounded in the ‘Democratic establishment’ and as such, an unwavering supporter of the State of Israel, words such as “Bibi, I don’t agree with a damn thing you say but I love you” leave us wondering how ambiguous a course of relations with Israel will take over the next four years.
Balancing efforts to reignite the nation’s receding reputation in world diplomacy alongside urgent domestic recovery efforts amidst a pandemic, close attention needs to be paid to the US’ presence in the Middle East. To do so, consider the following most obstructive moments of the last four years under Trump towards the Israeli-Palestinian peace process…
- Recognising Jerusalem as Israel’s capital:
In May 2018, the US officially recognised Jerusalem as the ‘true’ capital of Israel. Relocating the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to there, an ‘act of diplomatic arson’, the Trump Administration provocatively catered to right wing and evangelical supporters with disregard for how such a decision would play out on the ground. Coinciding with the 70th anniversary of Israel’s founding, alongside Nakba Day (Day of Catastrophe) and seven weeks of protests at the border of Gaza-Israel, claims that this was to promote peace and stability are highly questionable – rather better understood as reckless, self-defeating and dangerous. The Holy City of Jerusalem has been a non-negotiable issue for both Israelis and Palestinians, situated at the centre of peace-making negotiations for decades, with both sides claiming Jerusalem as their rightful capital.
- Devastating funding cuts
Under Trump, US contributions to the UN Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) were abruptly revoked – removing support for essential education, social and healthcare services for 5.4 million Palestinian refugees across the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. Previously the US was the largest single donor to UNRWA, funding almost 30% of its operations in 2017. Subsequently, the organisation has faced an unprecedented 200 million US dollar deficit. Interpreted as further disregard for another key sticking point in peace negotiations – the Palestinian right of return – the politicisation of humanitarian aid comes with tragic implications for civil society and those supported by UNRWA.
- Normalising illegal settlements
The number of settlements in the Occupied Palestinian Territories surged under Trump, in direct detriment to international consensus for a two-state solution and flagrant violation of international law. Moreover, ‘de facto annexation’ has been met with a significant increase in eviction notices and the demolition of Palestinian homes in the West Bank and East Jerusalem to make room for more planned settlements. Actively endorsed by former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as the first US diplomat to visit an Israeli settlement on the West Bank in November 2020, Pompeo has stated settlement goods can be labelled as ‘Made in Israel’ rather than ‘Made in West Bank’. Honoured by a red wine in his honour from Settlement Psagot, whilst Trump has been attributed a settlement in his name – Ramat Trump (Trump Heights) – in the Golan Heights, the Trump administration has normalised the occupation whilst explicitly rejecting international law.
- Excluding Palestinians from the Trump “peace” plan
Trump and senior advisor, Jared Kushner, inaugurated the ‘peace deal of the century’ whilst failing to include Palestinians in the peace process. Prioritising the Israeli narrative, and thus Israeli priorities – in which settlements are left in place as Israeli ‘enclaves’ within a Palestinian State, the Jordan Valley as Israel’s land, and a Palestinian capital city in the outskirts of Eastern Jerusalem – this peace proposal has little to do with peace and more to do with politics. Noting the timing and staging of this deal, whereby both Netanyahu and Trump faced legal and electoral challenges, this proposal offers further entrenchment of the status quo, rather than genuine prospects for peace.
Moreover, the Palestinian Centre for Public Opinion found that following Trump’s ‘Deal of the Century’, 85% of Palestinians felt the Conflict was more intractable than ever. Another 11% felt the Deal was an irrecoverable opportunity for achieving peace. To restore, as Ambassador to the UN Richard Mills puts it, “credible engagement with Palestinians as well as Israelis” requires a marked change from policies under Trump. This goes beyond a need to reject Trump’s policies and demands active diplomatic engagement from the Biden Administration.
Achieving promised diplomacy
Having contextualised the highly un-diplomatic decisions taken by former US President Trump, and the risks that come with excluding Palestinians from the peace process, it is fundamental that the current US administration take the following five measures outlined below seriously.
Such actions can restore faith in the United States’ role as a so-called honest broker of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict, whilst also keep Biden’s promise of a nation that will “again lead not just by the example of our power but the power of our example”.
- CRITICISE ISRAEL FOR LACK OF EQUAL DISTRIBUTION OF COVID-19 VACCINATIONS.
Addressing the highly concerning unequal distribution of vaccinations within Israel and Palestine is paramount. Although Israel is considered the world leader in vaccine roll-outs, having vaccinated over half of its population, including settlers in the West Bank, they have yet to provide any meaningful amount of vaccines to Palestinians residing in the Occupied Territories outside East Jerusalem. At time of writing, Israel has given a meagre 2,000 vaccine doses to the Palestinian Authority and promised a further 3,000 – half the number pledged to foreign allies in a bout of ‘vaccine diplomacy’.
Gaza, which is home to around 1.9 million Palestinians, has been under an Israeli-Egyptian blockade since 2007. The lack of access to appropriate health care in these territories is a direct violation of the Fourth Geneva Convention, which states the obligation of occupying powers to ensure medical supplies to the occupied populations. Moreover, addressing the unequal distribution of vaccines is also in the interest of the Israeli government, since Palestinians cross into Israel daily for work. Biden should therefore call for Israel to equally distribute vaccines and health services to Palestinians.
- IMPROVE DIPLOMATIC TIES WITH THE PALESTINIAN AUTHORITIES
Acknowledging the pressures of the pandemic alongside US officials’ reluctance to enter peace talks, the US administration could indicate support for such future strategy by officially communicating the re-opening of the Palestinian Authorities representative office in Washington, D.C. In addition, since the US has yet to appoint a new ambassador to Israel, before addressing the issue of relocation of the embassy back to Tel Aviv, a move which several officials have stated would not be reversed, Biden should seek to appoint a new ambassador that strongly supports comprehensive peace deals on its agenda, as opposed to its predecessor, David Friedman.
- RENOMINATE A PRO-PEACE UN AMBASSADOR
Biden should revoke his decision for the US envoy to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, who has already shown strong favouritism towards Israel. The nominee, who has just received Senate confirmation, has linked the Boycott, De-invest and Sanction Movement (BDS) as scratching the surface of anti-semitism. Nominating such an Ambassador would likely lead to inaction once more from the United Nations Security Council, through the use of US veto power in resolutions that condemn Israeli violations of international law. Richard Mills, acting U.S ambassador to the United Nations, has already shared the administration’s commitment to a two-state solution, and called on the harmful consequences of annexation of territory and settlement activity, which is in the best interests of reaching a peaceful solution. However, steadfast remarks that there will be no ‘u-turn’ in regards to the Israeli embassy in Jerusalem or of Israeli rule over the Golan Heights are concerning and prove contradictory in Mills’ desire to achieve a viable Palestinian state.
- REINSTATE UNRWA FUNDING
The US, longtime supporter of humanitarian aid to Palestine and Palestinian refugees through funding of UNRWA, should reinstate its commitment once again to the UN agency. Of the recent UNRWA appeal for 2021, 231 million US dollars of the 1.5 billion total appeal is needed to provide emergency humanitarian assistance to the effects of the blockade and occupation in Occupied Palestinian territories. The services to be provided in these territories would include the prevention of COVID-19 and core health services, including support for the degrading mental health of Palestinian children in Gaza, alongside primary education. By revoking Trump’s decision, Biden would follow the steps of all US Presidents who preceded Trump since the creation of UNRWA – either Republican or Democrat – which was previously understood as a sign of commitment to the stability and peace of the region.
- BE TOUGH ON SETTLEMENTS
Biden should reiterate the illegality of Israeli settlements in occupied Palestinian territories publicly, by (at least) not interfering with the latest ICC ruling, whereby the Court’s jurisdiction was recently expanded to the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, Gaza and East Jerusalem. This further provides recognition of Palestine as a state and thus corroborates with Biden’s claimed support for a ‘two-state solution’. The latest Court decision reflects increasingly widespread condemnation of Israel’s wrongdoings, situated in growing recognition of the apartheid nature of the Israeli state; at the same time as it opens doors to investigate war crimes committed by both Israel and Palestinian militant group Hamas. The court jurisdiction therefore has limited grounds to be criticised as ‘anti-semitic’ and the Biden Administration should in fact welcome the impartiality of the ICC. Doing so might also halt the on-going demolitions of Bedouin villages in the West Bank that are leaving families homeless.
Rebuilding the peace process
These five measures provide a crucial basis for rebuilding a genuine peace process for both Israelis and Palestinians, as well as an important marking point for Biden’s claims to re-centre the United States on the diplomatic world stage. Failing to act on these key recommendations may further distance Palestinians from peace efforts and risk deepening long-term detriment to the region. At the time of Trump’s ‘peace plan’ release, a significant number of Palestinians preferred to recover all of the historical land of Palestine over permanent peace agreements with Israel, however recent polls conducted in Palestine have shown optimism in entering dialogue with Biden’s administration, which provides further space for engaging in peace discussions.
The US should thus urgently reconsider its long-standing, blind support to Israel – and most of all to Netanyahu, who is on trial for alleged corruption and is attempting a sixth return to office. Should Biden decide to reach out to Netanyahu and Israeli officials before Israel’s forthcoming elections in late March, efforts should be made to potentiate elections that envisage peaceful coexistence with Palestine.
Ana Guimarães & Sarah Chaya Smith are Research Associates at the SOAS Centre on Conflict, Rights and Justice.
Both share a deep concern for the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict and have worked towards various justice efforts within the region, including top-down and grassroots peace building work, alongside refugee integration in neighbouring countries.
This paper was submitted on the 25th February. The views expressed in this policy brief remain those of the author(s).