The Biden Administration’s Stealthy Success
Mostly lost amidst the uproar this week in Israel over the mushrooming police spyware scandal was a news item about another controversial topic. According to Yisrael HaYom, Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Defense Minister Benny Gantz have frozen plans to proceed with construction in E1, a settlement that would connect East Jerusalem and Ma’ale Adumim and divide the northern West Bank from the southern West Bank. E1 has been a longstanding U.S. redline dating back to the George W. Bush administration, and was one of the spots identified by the Biden administration as particularly sensitive given its importance for Palestinian territorial contiguity in the West Bank and the impact that building a new Jewish settlement there would have on a future two-state outcome. The reported removal of E1 from the Supreme Planning Committee’s agenda is the latest demonstration of the Biden administration’s under-the-radar successful approach to Israeli-Palestinian issues over the course of its first year in office.
The obstacles to developing and executing a proactive policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that amounts to anything more than a game of whack-a-mole are exhaustive. Without delving into anything below the surface level, they include a president with a thousand other priorities, a new and inexperienced Israeli prime minister at the head of an unprecedentedly broad coalition with only a one-seat margin, an ossified and unpopular Palestinian government that has not held a national election in fifteen years, an Israeli public doubtful that peace with the Palestinians can be achieved, and a Palestinian public doubtful that Israel will ever allow an independent Palestinian state.
Many have been understandably skeptical that President Biden would accomplish anything productive in this sphere, while some have gone further in expressing derision. This last group sometimes includes the Palestinians themselves, with anonymous Palestinian Authority officials occasionally telling journalists that Biden is no better than President Trump when it comes to restraining Israel or securing Palestinian rights.
If anyone’s metric for success was resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—whether through a negotiated agreement, Palestinian capitulation to acceptance of permanent statelessness, or Israel being pressured to withdraw overnight from every centimeter of land over the Green Line—then Biden has indeed accomplished little. A reasonable comparison of achievable expectations with accomplishments, however, shows that Biden and his team have made unmistakable progress, with a foundation laid to advance some more ambitious objectives in the future.
On the Israeli side, any fears that Biden was going to freeze Israel out have been laid to rest. Aside from face-to-face meetings and phone calls between Biden and Bennett, there is routine engagement between Antony Blinken and Yair Lapid, Lloyd Austin and Benny Gantz, Jake Sullivan and Eyal Hulata, and mid-level officials on both sides, as well as the resumption of the U.S.-Israel Strategic Consultative Group. Whether it be on Iran or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, differences between the two sides are being managed well and largely quietly. Nobody in the Israeli government questions the American commitment to Israeli security—Rand Paul’s unilateral blocking of supplemental Iron Dome funding notwithstanding—or is worried about the withdrawal of American security or diplomatic assistance. Reminding Israel that the U.S. can remain Israel’s preeminent friend and partner without bestowing on it unreasonable gifts such as annexation or settlement legalization is in itself a much-needed corrective to the U.S.-Israel relationship.
On the Palestinian side, despite disappointments arising from expectations for what Biden would and could do that were closer to fantasy than reality, Biden has resumed economic support to the West Bank, resumed funding the critical services that UNRWA provides, and ended the sense that the U.S. is waging diplomatic war on the Palestinians. More importantly, all talk of annexation is completely gone, while the U.S. has gone out of its way to stress the importance of improving Palestinian quality of life. This is not to say that the Palestinians’ grievances of not having moved any closer to independence since Biden took office are illegitimate, but it is unfathomable to compare the current situation to what existed under Trump and insist that six of one is half a dozen of the other.
There is a handy, if self-serving, shortcut for understanding the Biden administration’s track record just over one year in. When Ilan Goldenberg, Tamara Cofman Wittes, and I wrote a report at the end of 2020 laying out a new U.S. strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, we outlined a three-pronged approach that began with tackling pressing issues before moving on to more concrete steps advancing a two-state outcome. This first phase was comprised of clarifying core principles of U.S. support for a negotiated approach to two states and advancing freedom, security, and prosperity; resuming economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians and funding for UNRWA; reopening the Jerusalem consulate; focusing on improving living standards and quality of life in the West Bank and Gaza; reforming Palestinian martyr and prisoner payments; and deterring the most damaging Israeli moves on territory, such as annexing any part of the West Bank, building in places such as E1, Atarot, and Givat HaMatos, or upending the Temple Mount status quo.
On only one of these issues—reopening the consulate—has there been no tangible progress. Some of them have been achieved in full, such as clarifying core American principles on how we would like to see the conflict resolved and resuming funding to the Palestinians consistent with the Taylor Force Act’s restrictions. Some of them have no hard metric for completion but have unquestionably been successful, such as improving quality of life in the West Bank and Gaza, which has been done by taking advantage of Bennett’s and Gantz’s embrace of the nebulous paradigm of shrinking the conflict and under the complementary rubric of strengthening the PA. Open American criticism and demands for answers on issues such as Sheikh Jarrah evictions or the death of Omar Assad have unquestionably led the Israeli government to proceed more carefully and cautiously.
While Israel has announced tenders and approvals for new settlement construction in a number of places, it is certainly not a coincidence that E1 has been mothballed, Atarot has been officially and indefinitely delayed, and Givat HaMatos has not yet moved forward despite final approvals issued and the tender process opened during Trump’s final days in office. Even on the prisoner and martyr payments—perhaps the thorniest issue of the entire set—there are rumblings that the U.S. and Palestinians are moving closer to an arrangement that will turn the system into one of employment and welfare payments that are disconnected from prison sentences.
This is not to say that there haven’t been failures and disappointments for both sides and for the U.S. Palestinians who believe that the Biden administration is only making it easier for Israel to claim that the occupation is benign can point to the emphasis on economic progress rather than political progress, or to efforts to stop the most damaging actions rather than reverse steps that have been taken in the past. But adopting a long view of the situation, the U.S. has spent the past year not trying to fundamentally transform the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but instead to reestablish a more firm grounding, reset the relationships with both parties in a positive way, and create the foundation for increased cooperation that will allow for more proactive progress rather than reactive damage control in the next stage. From my perspective, this has been a successful formula for operating within the constraints that exist, and for ensuring that pragmatic good wins out over more ambitious but unattainable perfection.
This article was originally posted in Ottomans and Zionists.