WASHINGTON — Palestinian Authority official Husam Zomlot decried Democratic candidate Joe Biden on Tuesday for not taking a strong enough stance against Israel’s proposed annexation of parts of the West Bank.
Zomlot, the PLO’s ambassador to the United Kingdom and a former envoy in Washington, argued that Biden’s unwillingness to threaten harsh consequences for Israel should Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu extend sovereignty to the West Bank settlements will enable the Israeli premier to move forward with his plan.
“We are not seeing any new sort of policy lever on the part of the Biden campaign that would actually help in the changing of the calculus,” Zomlot said on a Zoom call organized by the US-based Israel Policy Forum, a nonprofit that supports a two-state solution. “So far, it’s nothing that would actually dissuade Netanyahu from going ahead with annexation.”
Biden has stated on multiple occasions that he opposes annexation. “It would choke off any hope for peace,” he told the AIPAC Policy Conference in March. But he has not delineated what the US policy response should be.
The former vice president has said he would not reduce US aid to Israel, if he is elected. “I’m not going to place conditions on security assistance, given the serious threats that Israelis face,” Biden said last week. “This would be, I think, irresponsible.”
On the Tuesday Zoom call, Zomlot insisted that this posturing effectively sends a message that Netanyahu could unilaterally annex parts of the West Bank without any material ramifications from the United States, no matter who wins the November election.
“If no one is now calling for implementing sanctions, if annexation does not merit the imposition of sanctions by the US, I don’t know what will actually qualify for sanctions,” he said. “If Netanyahu does not hear and feel the word sanctions … then his calculus will continue and he will [enact] annexation.”
Over the course of the 2020 Democratic primary, several of Biden’s former challengers floated the idea of leveraging aid to Israel to disincentivize the Israeli government from executing policies that damaged the possibility of a two-state outcome.
In the last few weeks, Democrats and progressive pro-Israel activists have debated how harsh the US response should be under a new administration, as the move — backed in principle by the Trump White House — is widely considered a red line that would severely weaken the possibility of an eventual two-state outcome.
Two former Obama officials have proposed slashing some aid to Jerusalem as a consequence, while others have said the United States should refuse to shield Israel from international censure. More than 30 Obama national security alums urged the Democratic National Committee to take a strong stance on annexation in the 2020 party platform.
Responding to Democratic rumblings of discontent, AIPAC released a statement two weeks ago that sought to convince lawmakers not to push for any changes to US-Israel policy as a reaction to annexation.
Zomlot, who previously served as the Palestinian envoy to Washington before US President Donald Trump shuttered the office in September 2018, said the move would would fundamentally change the dynamics of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“We do consider annexation to be the smoking gun,” he said. “It does not only represent a change … it’s a transformation, a statement, not only in the political sense but in the legal sense of the end of the very notion of partition, of the very principle of a two-state solution. It is a psychological threshold that, should we pass, it would be a point of no return.”
The State Department said it is ready to recognize Israel’s annexation of parts of the West Bank, although an official told The Times of Israel that the step should be “in the context of the Government of Israel agreeing to negotiate with the Palestinians along the lines set forth in President Trump’s Vision.”
Trump unveiled his Mideast proposal in January, which envisaged Israel extending sovereignty to roughly 30 percent of the West Bank including all the settlements and the Jordan Valley, with a Palestinian state in the rest of the territory and various land swaps.
“The Trump administration is more into annexation than the Israeli government itself,” Zomlot said. “We believe that Netanyahu is serious, and he has every single reason to be, because the costs are far less than what he perceives to be the benefit for him personally.”
Zomlot added that it was therefore on the presumptive Democratic nominee to convince Netanyahu that annexation would result in serious repercussions under a future Democratic leader. Otherwise, he asserted, the pathway toward a two-state outcome will be permanently foreclosed.
“If we don’t prevent it now, it will be a new dawn,” he said. “If the Biden team does not send the right messages now and if they do not contribute to changing the calculus — and they are not so far – I think the headache that Mr. Biden will inherit once he is elected, if he is elected, will be immense.”