Biden breaks from predecessors by taking it slow on Israeli-Palestinian peace

Like Trump, Obama, Bush and Clinton, US president says ultimate goal is 2-state solution; unlike them, he’s not interested in launching a high-stakes initiative to get there

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US Vice President Kamala Harris looks on as President Joe Biden signs a series of executive orders in the State Dining Room of the White House, January 26, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
US Vice President Kamala Harris looks on as President Joe Biden signs a series of executive orders in the State Dining Room of the White House, January 26, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

US President Joe Biden’s administration gave its first official policy statement on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at a UN Security Council meeting on Tuesday, and falling in line with previous administrations, it voiced support for a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It was that same endgame that brought former presidents Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Barack Obama and Donald Trump to each try their luck at presenting respective peace plans and at bringing the parties together for high-stakes negotiations.

Clinton welcomed Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat to the White House in 1993 and 1995 to sign the Oslo Accords and then invited Arafat and then-Israeli prime minister Ehud Barak to Camp David for a final attempt at reconciliation in 2000.

Bush published his Roadmap for peace in 2002, and brought Palestinian and Israeli representatives together in Aqaba the following year.

Obama, on his first day in office in 2009, appointed a special envoy for the peace process and his secretary of state Hillary Clinton led direct negotiations in 2010 and 2011, during which the US asserted that a resolution to the conflict was possible within a year. After those talks failed, Clinton’s successor John Kerry embarked on his own effort, shuttling between Jerusalem and Ramallah in 2013 and 2014 for indirect negotiations that similarly ended with no result.

Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, US President Bill Clinton, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, at the Oslo Accords signing ceremony on September 13, 1993. (Wikipedia)

Trump entered office speaking of his desire to achieve the “ultimate deal.” His son-in-law and adviser Jared Kushner crafted a two-part peace plan that was unveiled in 2019 and 2020, but the Palestinians boycotted it, and the administration sufficed with pursuing normalization agreements between Israel and Arab states in the region instead.

Now it’s Biden’s turn.

But rather than falling into the ostensible honey-trap that allured his predecessors, the new US president has a different strategy. Instead of going for it all at once, the Biden administration prefers pushing incremental steps that can be taken by both parties while discouraging unilateral moves that would dissolve whatever confidence still remains between the sides.

The end goal is still the same, and Acting US Ambassador to the UN Richard Mills made that clear in the first line of his Tuesday address: “Under the new administration, the policy of the United States will be to support a mutually agreed two-state solution, one in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state.”

The Biden administration wasn’t just voicing support for the two-state solution, but in many ways has been doubling down on the concept, indicating that Trump had paid mere lip service to the idea, while allowing Israeli settlement construction to go unchecked in all parts of the West Bank for the past four years. Biden, on the other hand, has a long history of criticizing settlement construction and did so several times during the campaign.

Then-US president George W. Bush, center, with Israel’s then-prime minister Ariel Sharon, left, and then-Palestinian prime minister Mahmoud Abbas at Beit al Bahar Palace in the Jordanian Red Sea resort of Aqaba, June 4, 2003. (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite, File)

And yet, Mills followed up that statement with a significant caveat, which was rarely used by previous administrations unwilling to take no for an answer: “US diplomatic engagement will begin from the premise that sustainable progress must be based on active consultation with both sides and that ultimate success requires the active consent of both sides,” he said.

“Unfortunately, as I think we’ve heard, the respective leaderships are far apart on final-status issues, Israeli and Palestinian politics are fraught, and trust between the two sides is at a nadir,” the US envoy continued.

The point though was to recognize reality, not excuse inaction.

“These realities do not relieve member states of the responsibility of trying to preserve the viability of a two-state solution. Nor should they distract from the imperative of improving conditions on the ground, particularly the humanitarian crisis in Gaza,” Mills said.

Netanyahu, Obama and Abbas during a meeting in New York in 2009 (photo credit: Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)
From left to right: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then-US president Barack Obama and PA President Mahmoud Abbas during a trilateral meeting in New York, September 22, 2009 (Avi Ohayon/GPO/Flash90)

The messaging was nearly identical to what was used by Biden and his aides during the campaign.

“This isn’t 2009, it’s not 2014. The parties are far from a place where they’re ready to engage on negotiations or final status talks,” Biden’s eventual Secretary of State Antony Blinken told The Times of Israel during the campaign.

He foresaw a Biden administration initially taking a posture of “do no harm” by ensuring that “neither side takes additional unilateral steps that make the prospect of two states even more distant or closing it entirely.”

Baby steps

That’s exactly what Mills would go on to push on Tuesday.

The envoy made three requests of Israel and two of the Palestinian Authority that the Biden administration deems will be necessary to keep the two-state solution alive.

Mills called on Israel to avoid West Bank annexation, settlement expansion and demolitions of Palestinian homes beyond the Green Line. Of the PA, the envoy asked that it reign in incitement to violence and cease its practice of monthly payments to security prisoners in Israeli jails, including those with blood on their hands.

Acting US Ambassador to the UN Richard Mills (Courtesy)

“We hope it will be possible to start working to slowly build confidence on both sides to create an environment in which we might once again be able to help advance a solution,” Mills said.

It was along that line that the UN envoy explained the decision to “renew” US relations with the Palestinians, which had “atrophied” during the Trump administration.

Mills spoke of Biden’s plan to reopen the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s diplomatic mission in Washington that was shuttered in 2018, along with the US Consulate in Jerusalem that served as a de facto embassy to the PA, but was shuttered in 2019. The envoy also said the president would “restore financial support for economic development and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people.”

“We do not view these steps as a favor to the Palestinian leadership. US assistance benefits millions of ordinary Palestinians and helps to preserve a stable environment that benefits both Palestinians and Israelis,” Mills explained.

But while Washington plans to embrace the Palestinians as a means to bring the parties back on a path toward a two-state solution, Biden officials have quickly made clear that this will not come at Israel’s expense.

Then-US president Donald Trump and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House, on September 15, 2020 (Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images/AFP)

Biden’s nominee to become the full-time ambassador at the UN made several gestures to Jerusalem during her confirmation hearing on Wednesday that indicated just that.

“I look forward to standing with Israel, standing against the unfair targeting of Israel, the relentless resolutions proposed against Israel unfairly,” Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Like Biden and Blinken, she too expressed her support for the Abraham Accords and interest in “widen[ing] the circle of peace” surrounding Israel.

And like Biden and Blinken, she spoke out fervently against the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement, calling the “actions and approach” taken by its supporters as “unacceptable.”

Unlike Obama, who avoided consulting with Israel as he negotiated a nuclear agreement with Iran, Biden officials have already made clear that they will keep Jerusalem in the loop. National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan spoke with his Israeli counterpart Meir Ben-Shabbat on Saturday and the two agreed to launch a “strategic dialogue” on the matter.

But the US efforts to build trust with both parties are not just an end in itself. They still appear connected to the broader goal of a resolution to the conflict, no matter how far off it might be.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and then-US vice president Joe Biden, in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (Emil Salman/Pool/Flash90)

The same seems to be the case regarding the administration’s support of the Abraham Accords, which Mills said “is not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

“It is the hope of the United States that normalization can proceed in a way that unlocks new possibilities to advance a two-state solution,” the envoy added.

But that was as far as Mills went on the matter. No mention of a new peace plan to be introduced, no circling of dates for the first round of negotiations, no promises of an agreement by the time he leaves office.

Biden surely would like to succeed where his predecessors have failed; but for now, he’ll suffice with a policy of “do no harm.”

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