Can Biden resolve the Israeli and Palestinian conflict?

Here are 4 policy pillars that would reset US foreign policy in the Middle East and help the region retrace its steps toward a viable two-state solution

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. (Collage/AP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) and Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi. (Collage/AP)

US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken, in a phone call Monday with Israeli Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, “addressed the US approach towards a more peaceful, secure, and prosperous future for Israelis, Palestinians, and the greater Middle East…. and emphasized the Biden administration’s belief that the two-state solution is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, living in peace alongside a viable and democratic Palestinian state.”

We could not agree more.

We also understand these realities: a two-state solution is not attainable anytime soon; the Biden administration is not prioritizing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Nevertheless, the administration does have an opportunity now to preserve a political horizon for an eventual two-state solution, and improve the rights, security, and well-being of Israelis and Palestinians by pursuing a realistic reset of US foreign policy in the region.

To attain these objectives, the Biden administration should focus on four core policy pillars, entailing a range of actions.

The first is to strengthen the US-Israel relationship and Israeli security. This involves more than the military arena, important as that is. The relationship faces new challenges in 2021, stemming in large part from the Trump administration’s unabashedly siding with Israel while Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu aligned himself closely with Republicans. These imbalances have to be reset.

So, too, does the Israel-Jordan relationship, which during the past two years reached its lowest point since the signing of a peace treaty between the two countries a quarter century ago. The Hashemite Kingdom, with which Israel shares its longest border, reportedly considered cancelling the peace treaty over the threat of West Bank annexation. Jordan is a key partner for the United States, and the administration should protect its stability, a core American interest, as well as the viability of its treaty with Israel.

At the same time, the Palestinian Authority suspended security coordination with Israel, also in response to potential annexation. A long-term suspension of this coordination, or the PA’s total collapse, would undermine Israeli security. Given Israel’s strategic importance for the US, the Biden administration should shore up Israeli-Palestinian ties, which would also buttress Israel’s security.

The second policy pillar is to rebuild US-Palestinian ties. The Trump administration’s one-sided campaign of punitive measures directed against the Palestinians, including shuttering the PLO office in Washington, DC, and subsuming the operations of the Consulate General in Jerusalem — which functioned as the American mission to the Palestinians — into the operations of the US embassy to Israel, did nothing to create leverage with the Palestinian leadership, while closing off critical lines of communication. In some instances, such as the complete cutoff of humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians, the previous president’s approach was downright cruel.

In light of the COVID-19 pandemic and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, resuming aid to the Palestinian people is an important first step in restoring the relationship between Washington and Ramallah. The Biden administration should also develop a strategy for reopening the diplomatic missions closed by its predecessor. In particular, reopening the consulate general will send a message that the US does not simply view the Palestinians as an appendage of Israel. Of course, this move may face political complications in Israel, while reopening the PLO mission could face legal complications owing to new statutes enacted over the past four years.

To ensure that the US-Palestinian relationship is sustainable, the Biden administration must also demand that the Palestinian Authority end harmful practices such as the martyrs fund (referred to by critics as “pay for slay”), and reform its governance, in order to promote transparency and a smooth succession to the next PA leader.

The third area of focus for the Biden administration pertains to the entire Middle East region. Normalization between Israel and Arab states offered a rare point of convergence between Presidents Trump and Biden; both support expanding Israel’s regional integration. President Biden should continue this path while simultaneously ensuring that any American concessions or ancillary agreements that follow from such normalization deals receive proper oversight, as opposed to the Trump administration’s seeking to bypass Congress in authorizing the sale of F-35 stealth fighter jets and other equipment to the United Arab Emirates.

Moreover, the United States should leverage Israel’s new relationships with Arab states to foster progress on the Palestinian front.

These actions build toward a fourth, overarching objective: preserving the possibility of a two-state outcome.

The Trump administration’s tenure saw various non-two-state proposals gain traction. Left-wing public intellectuals and some Western and Palestinian politicians and activists disavowed two states, in favor of a unitary democratic state. Meanwhile, prominent right-wing Israeli politicians, including Prime Minister Netanyahu, endorsed annexing large parts of the West Bank. This vision of an Israeli-dominated, undemocratic, de facto one-state model was enshrined in Trump’s Peace to Prosperity plan (misleadingly termed a two-state approach).

Despite the ascendancy of such ideas, the Palestinians’ failure to even respond to the Trump plan as a basis for negotiations is proof enough that an Israeli one-state vision is a nonstarter. Moreover, a single state entity can either be democratic or Jewish — but not both.  It therefore remains manifestly clear that the two-state framework is the only one that will deliver democracy, security, and sovereignty to both Israelis and Palestinians. All of the policies that the Biden administration implements on this front should seek to maintain a political horizon that leads to that outcome. Otherwise, extremists on both sides will find more room to create mayhem and obstruct the path toward a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A realistic, proactive approach to the conflict that preserves the viability of a two-state solution will make what is impossible today within reach in the future.

Susie Gelman is Board Chair and David A. Halperin is Executive Director of Israel Policy Forum, the American organization that supports a two-state solution consistent with Israel’s security.

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