As if finding a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict weren’t difficult enough, the Trump administration and the Netanyahu government seem hell-bent on making this already bad situation even worse. Sensing that the Trump era will soon be over, members of his team and the Israelis are racing against the clock to implement new “facts on the ground” that will, they hope, permanently alter the political landscape in Israel’s favor.
In just the past month, Israel
§ announced plans to add 1,257 settlement housing units—located on Palestinian land in an area that would permanently sever Bethlehem from Jerusalem;
§ announced another 4,948 settlement units, most between Ramallah and Nablus, thickening the settler presence in the heart of the West Bank, further impeding Palestinian movement northward;
§ demolished entire Palestinian villages and seized Palestinian homes and properties in areas Israel covets for expansion and control—in Jerusalem, the Jordan Valley, and the northern West Bank;
§ stepped up demolition of European Union–funded projects (schools, field hospitals, etc.) serving Palestinians; and
§ announced a plan to “legalize” 1,700 settlement units that were previously built without permits, while proceeding to demolish Palestinian homes that were also built without permits.
During this same period, the Trump administration
§ took steps to further legitimize the Israeli occupation by announcing that henceforth US assistance to Israel can be earmarked for West Bank settlements. This announcement came during the US ambassador to Israel’s visit to Ariel, a controversial colony in the heart of the West Bank;
§ had Secretary of State Mike Pompeo make a formal visit to a West Bank settlement—a first for a US Secretary of State—at which time he announced that products made in Israeli settlements could be sold in the US labeled “Made in Israel”; and
§ in an effort to silence critics of Israel, had Pompeo also announce plans to designate the Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement as anti-Semitic, as well as respected global human rights groups—since both have been critical of Israel’s violations of Palestinian human rights.
All of these moves combined serve to deepen Israeli control over the occupied territories—a form of “creeping annexation.” And the Trump administration’s changes in policy toward Jerusalem, Israel’s entire settlement enterprise, and the changed nomenclature now used to describe the occupied lands amount to recognizing Israeli sovereignty in those territories, thereby implementing the underpinnings of the “Deal of the Century.”
All of this puts the incoming Biden administration in a bind, because the damage now being done is real and will make its pledge to return to the status quo ante more difficult to achieve. Additionally, while Joe Biden, most of the US Congress, and much of the world community continue to pledge allegiance to the “two-state solution,” that hill has now become significantly harder to climb.
Blame for this state of affairs belongs to successive US administrations, all of which have been, to varying degrees, complicit in Israel’s acquisitiveness. For decades, the United States turned a blind eye or neglected to take effective measures to restrain Israel’s settlement expansion in Palestinian lands. They sinned by omission. The pro-settlement agenda pursued by the Trump administration, however, has amounted to a more grievous sin of commission.
The past two decades of failed policies created a number of deformities that make the future of a two-state solution difficult to even envision. The territories that were to have been dedicated to the future Palestinian State have been cut into pieces by settlements, infrastructure, and Jewish-only roads connecting them to each other and Israel proper.
Years of US enabling and coddling of the settlement enterprise has so emboldened Israeli hard-liners that politics in that country have moved dramatically rightward while the peace camp has shrunk to a tiny fraction of Israel’s political map. As a result, it is impossible to see how any coalition government could emerge in coming years that would be willing to make a peace with Palestinians that would include a sovereign, contiguous, and viable Palestinian State.
At the same time, US acquiescence to Israel’s disgraceful, abusive treatment of the Palestinians has weakened the credibility of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, while empowering and emboldening Hamas’s consolidation of power in the Gaza Strip. And finally, the erratic, often incoherent, and always pro-Israel US policies regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict discredited the US role as the main party responsible for brokering a just peace. This is true not only for the Palestinians but for much of the rest of the world as well.
These, then, are the main challenges to a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that will confront the incoming Biden administration. It must address: the territorial, political, and economic issues created by Israel’s massive settlement expansion; the consolidation of power by the far right in Israel; the dysfunction that has come to define the Palestinian polity; and the lack of trust in Washington’s discredited “go it alone” approach to peacemaking.
What follows are some steps the Biden administration could take to begin to set things right. As a first step, it must put muscle behind the Democratic Party platform pledges to oppose Israeli settlement construction and any moves toward annexation (including the “creeping annexation” involved in seizures of Palestinian land and home demolitions). To ensure that the US opposition is seen as credible, the new administration will need to revisit the country’s reluctance to hold Israel accountable for any violations. This will inevitably require a reassessment of the platform’s rejection of conditioning US assistance used in any expansionist activities.
The Biden team must rescind the Trump administration’s refusal to call the territories “occupied.” This must include not only the West Bank and Gaza Strip but also what Israel refers to as East Jerusalem. They must also reverse Secretary Pompeo’s recent changes in long-standing US policy by rejecting the notion that US assistance to Israel can be spent in the occupied lands or that settlement products can be labeled “Made in Israel.” And, in line with their platform pledge to protect free speech, the Biden team must rescind the blanket designation of BDS as anti-Semitic.
The Biden platform also calls for several steps that will be supportive of Palestinians and that should be enacted as soon as possible. These include pledges to restart aid to the Palestinians and UNWRA, to take the steps needed to reopen the Palestinian Mission in Washington, D.C., and to reopen the US Consulate in East Jerusalem. This reopening would best be coupled with the insistence that Palestinians from across the West Bank be allowed unimpeded access to the consulate’s services and that the United States intends that the consulate will one day serve as its embassy to the future State of Palestine. And the Biden administration should make it clear that it will apply internationally recognized human rights standards to Israeli behavior in the occupied territories— calling out Israel for home demolitions, land seizures, acts of collective punishment, and other violations of individual and communal rights.
Finally, given the Biden administration’s intention to reengage in multinational efforts to address the environment, health, nuclear weapons, and trade, it would be wise to take a multilateral approach to Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. It could, for example, use the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the Madrid Peace Conference to convene an international peace conference to restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. The support of the four Arab countries that now have peace agreements with Israel should be enlisted to assist in this conference and its aftermath. Biden’s people should also strive to empower the Quartet on the Middle East (comprising United Nations, the United States, the European Union, and Russia) to engage in mediation—but without Washington dominating the process and ignoring the role of the other parties.
If actions such as these were taken by the Biden administration, it might begin to alter the dynamics on the ground in the Israeli-Palestinian arena by helping end the sense of impunity that currently exists in Israel, while breathing new life into the dormant Israeli peace camp, thus creating a much-needed debate about the future of peace with the Palestinians.
Positive Biden moves toward the Palestinians would also serve to rebuild the credibility of the Palestinian Authority and give hope to the Palestinian people that the United States will stand with them in defense of their political and human rights. And by taking a multilateral approach, the Biden administration would help to restore confidence both in peacemaking efforts and in the US role as a trusted partner in international affairs.
We should, however, have no illusion that the road forward will be swift and easy, even if the Biden administration were to take all of the steps outlined here. Cleaning up the mess left by decades of neglect and four years of Trump will not happen overnight. It will take time for attitudes to change and hope to be rekindled. But of one thing we can be certain: If bold steps are not taken, then we are, for sure, on the downward slope to consolidating an apartheid reality and continued oppression that will inevitably lead to more bloodshed.