Biden's plan for Palestine: Returning to a failed status quo
The eleven-day conflict between Israel and Hamas ended after an Egyptian-brokered ceasefire. However, a return to the status quo can hardly be considered a lasting solution.
Over 264 Palestinians, including 66 children, were killed in Israel’s military assault, while large swathes of the Gaza Strip, including homes, schools, and other key infrastructure, were destroyed.
While the immediate focus is on rebuilding Gaza, significant international political capital needs to be invested to prevent a return to violence, and in this regard, the United States will need to play a key role.
The question is whether the Biden administration will change its approach to Israel and Palestine, which so far has been described as “hands-off”.
"Biden came into office without a plan for Israel/Palestine. Like many people in the US foreign policy establishment, they assumed that Palestinian suffering did not matter"
During the conflict, the US defended Israel’s “right to defend itself”, blocked joint statements from the UN Security Council, and failed to demand an immediate ceasefire.
Despite re-engaging following a cessation of hostilities, experts remain sceptical that the US administration is willing to usher in a paradigm shift, particularly regarding Hamas.
"Biden came into office without a plan for Israel/Palestine. Like many people in the US foreign policy establishment, they assumed that Palestinian suffering did not matter,” Professor Nader Hashemi, Director of the Center for Middle East Studies at the University of Denver, told The New Arab.
“The way forward was to build on the Abraham Accords, which Biden was very enthusiastic about. Recall, this agreement between Israel and several Arab states (all dictatorships) offered nothing to the Palestinians that did not bother Team Biden".
Nonetheless, on the surface at least, US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken's comments during his visit to the Middle East last week appeared promising.
In a bid to rebuild diplomatic relations, which were all but severed under the Trump administration, the White House committed to reopening the Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem.
Senior Palestinian officials also said that there were discussions on reopening the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Washington DC.
The consulate in Jerusalem had long served as a de facto Palestinian embassy since the Oslo Accords in the 1990s.
It was closed in 2019 under the Trump administration and incorporated into the US embassy to Israel, which was moved from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, drawing sharp criticism.
Trump had accepted a significant deterioration in relations with Palestinians during his presidency. Biden is now, on paper, attempting to correct course and create a new diplomatic reality.
Blinken also promised financial aid, including additional economic and development funding worth $75 million, $5.5 million in emergency aid for the Gaza Strip, and an additional $32 million for the UN office for Palestinian refugees.
"Biden's plan for Gaza does not address the 15-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade"
It remains to be seen how meaningful and impactful these commitments will be.
"Biden's plan for Gaza does not address the 15-year Israeli-Egyptian blockade. Its stated goal is reconstruction and humanitarian aid for the people of Gaza,” Professor Nader Hashemi says.
“Why rebuild Gaza when it will likely be destroyed again in the next Israel-Gaza war? The 2009, 2012 and 2014 wars in Gaza were an identical replay of what happened in May. It is a truly vicious cycle without an end."
Moreover, a conversation with Hamas did not take place. The group in whole, or in some cases just its military wing, is designated as a terrorist group by the US, Israel, the EU, and the UK. But no long-term peace can be guaranteed without the political party’s involvement.
This will likely continue to be an obstacle, with the US stance to Hamas simply a continuation of the deep structural bias Washington has adopted towards the conflict.
"When Hilary Clinton was Secretary of State, she listed three conditions that Hamas would have to fulfil if it wanted to be taken seriously by the US,” Hashemi says. “First, it had to recognise Israel. Secondly, it had to renounce violence. Finally, it had to support previously negotiated agreements such as the Oslo Accords."
Indeed, while many Palestinian calls for unity that include Hamas have been on the table for a long time, predicated on the political platform of a Palestinian state on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, the group’s position on Israel makes it a complex undertaking.
"The PA is the principal guarantor of a status quo that ultimately serves Israel and its security, and for the US and Israel, this should continue"
"Hamas will only accept this proposal as long as it does not include direct recognition of Israel by the movement itself," Khaled Al Hroub, Professor of Middle East Studies at Northwestern University, told The New Arab.
Hashemi points out, however, that Israel has continued to receive carte blanche diplomatically despite not adhering to international law or norms.
"Israel is not required to recognise a Palestinian state within its internationally recognised borders. Israel is also not required to renounce violence or to adhere to the terms of the Oslo accords," he says, pointing out the different diplomatic standards.
The latter also raises the question of whether or not Biden would aim to promote Palestinian political reconciliation, since it would have to include Hamas.
"I doubt that the Americans and the Israelis care about Palestinian unity. They care about creating some diplomatic business that redirects the attention to the PA and its role," said Al Hroub.
Indeed, Biden is likely to seek to bolster the PA, as recent financial promises and reopening the consulate indicate. However, Washington's continued support of Abbas is not without controversy.
"Abbas is an 85-year-old dictator, running a corrupt administration that resembles other US-backed authoritarian regimes in the region," said Hashemi.
If a just and lasting resolution to the conflict is indeed the ultimate goal, unquestioned support for the PA should not be celebrated but rather lamented, he says.
"It is taking place for cynical PR reasons. The goal is to demonstrate that the US is an 'honest' mediator between Israelis and Palestinians when in truth, as we saw recently, Joe Biden is behaving like Israel's lawyer," he said.
The latter complicates any potential progress, particularly since the question of whether or not Hamas can become an interlocutor is arguably more relevant than before, given the change in power relations over the past few weeks.
"The PA is the principal guarantor of a status quo that ultimately serves Israel and its security, and for the US and Israel, this should continue. Yet, Hamas has emerged after the conflict as a powerful player, and its support across the board increased,” Al-Hroub says.
“Many Palestinians have perceived it as the protector and the defender of the Palestinians and their rights, not only in the Gaza Strip but also in Jerusalem."
"Biden and Blinken know that a serious attempt at resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict requires US pressure on Israel. This is something they refuse to contemplate"
One of Biden’s tasks will thus be to try to repair the Palestinian Authority's damaged legitimacy after the recent conflict, Al- Hroub believes.
But what options will Washington explore to improve the situation in the long term? Not many, Hashemi argues.
No serious plan has been put in place, with Washington’s response so far showing that it is more focused on crisis management than conflict resolution.
"The strategy seems to be, go through the motions of showing US leadership but secretly hope this topic will go away," said Hashemi.
Washington also remains reluctant to utilise its leverage with Israel and thus continues the tradition of not pressuring Israel into any concessions.
The latter does not come as a surprise. During the Democratic primaries, when Senator Bernie Sanders suggested leveraging US aid to improve conditions for Palestinians, Biden called the idea "bizarre".
"Biden and Blinken know that a serious attempt at resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict requires US pressure on Israel. This is something they refuse to contemplate," Hashemi said.
Biden’s approach was ill-advised from the beginning. His idea was to make Israel feel more secure, hoping that it might be willing to offer concessions to the Palestinians. "All the evidence suggests the exact opposite," Hashemi says.
Drastic changes in US-Palestinian relations are therefore unlikely. Washington's sine qua non is not a serious vision for peace but whatever is possible within the context of American domestic politics.
While unconditional support for Israel has witnessed its first fractures due to rising opposition within the Democrats' progressive wing, Biden will not be the president who breaks with Israel to usher in a new Palestinian zeitgeist in Washington and the Middle East.
Thomas O. Falk is a London-based freelance journalist who focuses on US affairs and the Middle East. He has written for Al Jazeera, Inside Arabia, il Giornale and other outlets.
Follow him on Twitter: @topfalk