As we mark the end of the first year of the Biden presidency, pundits and interest groups of all sorts will be evaluating how successful he has been in advancing the agenda he set for his administration. Because I was involved in negotiations with the Biden team over the language that would shape its platform on Middle East–related issues, I want to focus on some of the commitments the Biden campaign made both in its platform and directly to Arab Americans—specifically those related to addressing the Israel/Palestine conflict.
I’ve been engaged in battles over the Democratic Party’s platform since working with the 1988 Jesse Jackson presidential campaign. Back then, after urging the Dukakis campaign to accept some mention of Palestinians, I was told that “if the ‘P word’ even appears in the platform, all hell will break loose.” Flash forward to 2016: While working with the Sanders campaign, I fought for and lost the fight to include opposition to Israeli settlement expansion in the Clinton platform. Given this history, I was pleased that the Biden team was willing to insert some language we had failed to have included in earlier years.
The Biden platform did, for example, speak about the “equal worth and value” of Israelis and Palestinians. It also condemned Israeli settlements. Where we focused pressure in 2020 was on our insistence that the Biden campaign accept the principle of conditionality—tying US political and economic assistance to Israel on its policies in the occupied territories. We failed to have any language of this sort inserted in the platform—and it is the absence of this conditionality that is the reason the Biden administration has been unable to deliver on many of its other campaign pledges to Palestinians.
In both the 2020 Biden platform and his campaign’s “Plan for Partnership” with the Arab American community, Biden addressed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict thusly:
- “Joe Biden believes in the worth and value of every Palestinian and every Israeli. He will work to ensure that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy.”
- “His policies will be grounded in a commitment to a two-state solution, where Israel and the future viable state of Palestine will live together in peace, security, and mutual recognition.”
- “Biden opposes any unilateral steps by either side that undermine a two-state solution. He opposes annexation and settlement expansion and will continue to oppose both as President.”
- “As President, Biden will take immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, consistent with U.S. law, including assistance to refugees, work to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza…”
- .”..reopen the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem…”
- .”..and work to reopen the PLO mission in Washington.”
One year later, even a cursory glance at this list makes it clear that, with the exception of item 4, the Biden administration has failed to deliver on—or even make progress toward—any of the other pledges it made in addressing Israel/Palestine.
The lives and worth of Palestinians have repeatedly been subordinated to those of Israelis. Israel has continued to take unilateral measures that make a two-state solution impossible to even imagine. And it appears that the Biden administration has surrendered to Israel and pro-Israel “hawks” in Congress on reopening both the Jerusalem Consulate (which is actually in West, not East, Jerusalem) and the PLO office in Washington.
During the past year, the situation confronting Palestinians in the occupied territories has appreciably worsened. The Gaza war, which was precipitated by provocative Israeli actions that threaten to change the status quo at the Temple Mount and efforts to evict Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem—and by Hamas’s foolish and dangerous use of rockets, resulted in: the deaths of more than 200 Palestinians and a dozen Israelis, devastation to Gaza’s infrastructure, and the destruction of the homes of tens of thousands. Dozens of Palestinian demonstrators in the West Bank also lost their lives to Israeli gunfire.
The Biden administration had only a timid response to both Israel’s actions in Jerusalem and its disproportionate use of force in Gaza and the West Bank. And the aid the US has offered Palestinians, while welcomed, was $360 million—a paltry sum when compared to Israel’s $3.8 billion annual aid, supplemented by an additional $1 billion to replenish its “Iron Dome” defense system.
Israel’s new government has announced plans to significantly increase the number of settlement housing units in the occupied lands and has “legalized” a number of previously “unauthorized” settlements—this growth is strategically planned to further consolidate Israeli control over the territories and make impossible the establishment of a viable independent Palestinian state. At the same time, Israel has continued to demolish Palestinian homes, and done nothing to curb the spike in organized settler violence and harassment directed at Palestinians living near illegal Israeli settlements. To make matters worse, the Israelis have declared the leading Palestinian human rights monitoring and advocacy groups to be terrorist-affiliated in an effort to discourage European countries from continuing their financial support to them.
In the face of all these Israeli actions, the Biden administration has done little more than express “deep concern”—which, because there is no conditionality, the Israelis feel free to ignore. Taking no concrete action to push Israel to halt settlement growth while allowing the creeping annexation of Palestinian land and increasing the pressure on captive Palestinians contradicts all of the goals set by the Biden team.
In an effort to defend the administration’s inaction, some apologists express concern that a more combative stance against the new Israeli government would threaten its stability and risk bringing Netanyahu back into office. They also suggest that challenges to Israel will cause blowback from both Republicans and some Democrats in Congress. While this may be true, subordinating Palestinian rights to concerns for Israeli or domestic politics certainly calls into question the Biden administration’s stated commitment to the “equal worth and value of both Israelis and Palestinians.” It renders such pledges to Palestinians hollow.
President Biden still has time to course correct and demonstrate desperately needed leadership in making good on his platform promises. That would be the right thing to do. But, given his record to date, I have little confidence that he will act.