Biden, Israel and Palestine

Yesterday, the Israel Policy Forum had as its guest on its regular 2:00 p.m. Tuesday Webinar, David E. Shapiro. In January, President Biden reappointed Shapiro as the “Ambassador to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.” However, Biden quickly shifted course and removed the addition of the West Bank and Gaza in his title after the title was greeted by outrage from both sides of the aisle. Susie Gelman, the host of the Israel Policy Forum webinar, did not ask Shapiro for an interpretation of this brief eruption, perhaps because she recognized that, as a diplomat, he could not give an answer.

Was it inadvertent? Or was it a carry over of the title Donald Trump had, unknowingly to Americans in general, assigned his ambassador? It is hard to believe that it was simply a technical glitch. The controversy had two very different reactions. From one point of view, there was resentment at bundling the responsibilities in dealing with two enemies together for the same ambassador. From another opposite side, there was the complaint of assigning an ambassador to territories not recognized as part of a state – either Israel or Palestine.

During the Obama administration, David E. Shapiro was the U.S. Ambassador to Israel. That is his title now. There is no indication that he personally expected any other title. Nevertheless, the slip up was at the very least symbolic, indicating more continuity with the Trump administration than discontinuities, in spite of Biden’s expressed intent to restore humanitarian aid to the Palestinians and UNRWA as well as allow the PLO to open an office in Washington and the U.S. to provide direct liaison relations with Palestinians that do not have to go through the embassy in Jerusalem. On the other hand, Biden has also vowed not to reverse the embassy decision nor, by implication, the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s undivided capital. However, will Biden shift American policy on settlements, on Iran or on peace negotiations?

There has been a great deal of speculation that Biden would place a renewed emphasis on peace talks, but that can only be wishful thinking since officials in the Biden administration have clearly stated that peace negotiations will remain on the back burner as the time was not ripe for such discussions. Further, it will be important to assess the results of the election in Israel and, possibly (likely?) in Palestine. In the meanwhile, the Biden administration will continue both the Trump and Obama administration policy of favouring a two-state solution and refusing to go down the rabbit hole of a one-state solution.

However, it is a very different two-state solution than the one outlined in great detail in Jared Kushner’s Peace and Prosperity Plan (PPP) in which there would be over 40 islands of Palestinians surrounded by Israeli settlements. Neither, on the other hand, would it be a peace plan using the 1967 Green Line as the reference for determining a border. Rather, the border will most likely follow the path of the existing security barrier that would place the major settlement blocs within Israel.  Even Michaeli, leader of the Labor Party, is campaigning on that basis – that is, the major settlement blocks would be incorporated into Israel in a peace agreement.   

Such a stand frustrates those in the left of the Democratic Party who want an outright condemnation of all settlements on the other side of the 1967 Green Line as illegal, even if those politicians also admit that many of those settlements will be traded to Israel in return for land of an equal size elsewhere. Whatever the boundaries, whatever the divisions of the West Bank, whatever the legal status of the various settlements left on the “wrong” side of any divide, there is a consensus in successive administrations that a two-state solution is the ONLY way to resolve the problem. One-state solutions, from either the right or the left, are beyond the pale.

That is because, for both Biden and Shapiro, Israel must remain both a democratic as well as a Jewish state consistent with Biden’s goal of making the expansion and strengthening of democratic regimes a central plank in American foreign (and domestic!) policy. As Antony Blinken, Biden’s new Secretary of State, put the matter unequivocally, “We will incentivize democratic behavior, but we will not promote democracy through costly military interventions or by attempting to overthrow authoritarian regimes by force. We tried these tactics in the past. …they haven’t worked. They have given democracy promotion a bad name and they have lost the confidence of the American people. We will do things differently.”

One implication is that if Marwan Barghouti, now spending five consecutive terms in an Israeli prison, runs at the head of a Palestinian  separate Fatah list, the Biden administration will be caught between the legendary rock and a hard place. Barghouti is a convicted terrorist. Biden, given his commitment to the democratic process, will not easily be able to ignore Barghouti’s election. But neither will Biden be interested in making Barghouti a negotiating partner. What will the United States do? I have no idea.

Each step or move in foreign policy must advance that goal. As Shapiro stated it, “Democracy is the organizing principle of the Biden regime.” “Does an action promote or impede democratic development?” will be a front and centre in analyzing any foreign policy initiative. There may be no near-term solution to the Israeli-Palestinian problem, but that does not mean there cannot be progress, that meaningful steps forward cannot be taken, that the cause of democracy cannot be advanced. Democratic norms can be given greater depth. Belief in them can be broadened. Conditions can be put in place for encouraging the growth of democracy.

Thus, the Biden administration will pursue a two-state solution in coordination with both parties and not unilaterally with the Israelis. Gideon Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett may be leading Israeli political parties to the right of Netanyahu on a platform of one Jewish dominated state, with possible autonomy for Palestinians, but Biden has signalled that if either becomes Prime Minister of Israel, they will not only not have cooperation from America, they will be met with strong resistance. The Abraham Accords, which the Biden administration has endorsed, proved that incentives can induce Israel to put annexation on the back burner. That may not resolve the problem of creeping annexation, but it will avoid a crisis at the very least between the US and Israel when the US is committed to full military and intelligence cooperation with Israel.  

What about America’s dealings with the Palestinians? The US will remain committed to institutionalizing democracy for Palestine and may not be so ready to dump both Hamas and democracy if Hamas gets significant support. Instead, a much more subtle game of diplomacy will come into play to offer a combination of incentives and pressures to strengthen democracy as well as to get Hamas to sign on to non-violence and to recognizing the legitimacy of Israel.

Iran is another potential bone of contention between Israel and the Biden administration, but is an issue that only affects the Palestinians peripherally. Both Israel and the US have sworn that Iran will not be allowed to acquire nuclear weapons. But for Israel, the issue is an existential question whereas for America it is only a strategic one. At the same time, on the issue of Iran, more particularly on the question of America rejoining the JCPOA, the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action dealing with Iran’s nuclear program, there has been more misunderstanding of the Biden administration policy than on any other matter.

As part of his election campaign, Biden had pledged to rejoin the JCPOA from which Trump had withdrawn America in 2018. But there was no indication of what the conditions might be for re-entry or the timetable. There was only the promise that Biden would seek to rejoin the accord as soon as he gained the office of the presidency. Last summer, the Democratic Party platform raised progressive hopes that Biden would swiftly and unambiguously renounce Trump’s decision to withdraw from the deal: The policy described “returning to mutual compliance with the agreement” as an “urgent” priority. However, it is clear from the top officials that he has appointed, Antony Blinken as his Secretary of State and Jake Sullivan as his foreign policy adviser, have articulated that the US will not be rejoining the JCPOA any time soon and not without conditions.

Blinken: “Iran is restarting dangerous elements of its nuclear program that JCPOA stopped. It is acting more provocatively in the region, endangering US forces. We’re alienated from our allies.” The new administration has already made clear that it will not risk driving Saudi Arabia into China or Russia’s arms by ignoring the concerns of the Saudis with respect to Iran.

Biden’s National Security Advisor, Jake Sullivan, along with Tony Blinken, had played an important role in negotiating the JCPOA in the Obama administration. They declared that the Biden administration would not lift any of the sanctions that Trump imposed on Iran until Iran proved it was in full compliance. Nevertheless, the US was committed to a diplomatic path.

However, both Blinken and Sullivan have added other conditions which Ambassador Shapiro repeated in his webinar yesterday;

  • Reconsideration of the sunset clauses now that Iran is six years closer to than when Blinken and Sullivan had negotiated the deal
  • A better inspections regime
  • Inclusion of provisions dealing with Iran’s missile program
  • Some pledge and action by Iran to reverse its program of meddling in the affairs of its neighbours.

Biden, Blinken and Sullivan are not just pushing re-entry. They effectively want a new deal, but they are unwilling to spend political capital to achieve one. Biden and his team have already disappointed those in the Democratic Party peace camp. They have fallen well short on expectations on the signal policy with respect to Iran.  Instead of following the progressives’ push to resuming compliance with the deal as quickly as possible, Biden’s team has diddled and dawdled.  Tehran must take the first steps and become fully compliant. Further, Biden’s folks have signalled that even this would be insufficient. And the pledge to follow the diplomatic route seems to have been betrayed by the US government’s reprisal air attacks on Iranian facilities in Syria in response to an Iranian-backed attack on an American position in Iraq. Two days later, Iran rejected the EU offer to resume direct negotiations with the US over rejoining the JCPOA.

The Biden administration has inherited the Trump conviction that sanctions are effective in getting Iran to change course, especially if diplomacy is backed by carrying a big stick. Robert Malley, Biden’s special envoy to Iran, may support a more dovish approach, but the weight is on the side of Blinken, Sullivan and Shapiro, especially when staffing in the State Department had been so depleted under Trump giving the Pentagon and the National Security Council a greater influence. It does not help that Robert Menendez, the new Democratic chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, opposed even the original Iran deal.

What is also clear is that a replay of the spat with Israel over Iran is not in the cards. Benny Gantz may engage in sabre rattling against Iran, but America is now committed to much closer cooperation and coordination with Israel in both its diplomatic and military dealings with Iran. That also means that Iran will not be high up on Biden’s agenda.

Iran, in supporting militias that directly clash with US forces in Iraq, and in its regional adventurism, in its push on missile technology added on top of its resumption of its nuclear program, makes it a more formidable challenge for US diplomats. Pressure from close US allies, Israel, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, now seem to ensure that the peace camp in the Democratic Party will remain frustrated. Given Iran’s presidential elections in June and the prospect of a more hardline government, the window for Biden to re-enter the JCPOA and adopt a more conciliatory approach to dealing with Iran has most likely been closed for now.

There are other issues with a more direct impact on relations with the Israelis and the Palestinians. At the forefront of these is the conflict over the International Criminal Court (ICC) decision to launch investigations into both Israeli and Palestinian behaviour. I will deal with this issue in a separate blog. My next blog will zero in on the most divisive issue dividing Israelis and Palestinians – East Jerusalem and the settlements.

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