By Arab News
By Osama Al-Sharif*
Facing his first international crisis, US President Joe Biden sought to prevent Israel from facing reprimand at the UN Security Council, opting instead to publicly support its right to self-defense, while privately exerting pressure on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to wrap up the military operation in Gaza. After an 11-day showdown between Israel and armed Palestinian factions in Gaza, Biden succeeded in convincing Netanyahu to observe a ceasefire, apparently negotiated by Egypt, which came into effect on Friday. Hamas and Islamic Jihad also agreed to what appears to have been an unconditional truce.
Aside from the recent clashes, the Biden administration has taken a number of steps on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that are seen as key to redefining America’s role as an interlocutor. The US had rejected Israeli measures aimed at evicting the Palestinian residents of the Sheikh Jarrah neighborhood of East Jerusalem. It also criticized recurrent Israeli incursions at Al-Aqsa Mosque and underlined Jordan’s special role with regards to the holy site. Even before the war on Gaza erupted, the State Department said that the US considers the West Bank to be occupied territory and that the future of Jerusalem remains unresolved.
The US has resumed aid to Palestinian institutions and reinstated its financial support of UNRWA. More importantly, Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have recommitted the US to the two-state solution as the only path to ending the decades-old conflict. These moves are important, but for the time being remain largely symbolic gestures that reverse some of President Donald Trump’s unilateral decisions that complicated the conflict and emboldened Israel to carry out illegal measures in the Occupied Territories.
Pundits believe that Biden and his foreign policy team wanted to reset the US stance on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to conform with international law and resolutions, but without getting involved in a new peace initiative and doing the heavy lifting. Other regional files took precedence, including pulling US troops out of Afghanistan, resolving the Yemen crisis and, most importantly, rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.
But Israeli provocations in East Jerusalem and the eruption of yet another military faceoff between Israel and militant groups in Gaza forced the Biden administration to step in; finding itself at the center of another dark chapter in an endemic conflict.
Now Blinken is in the region, mainly to cement the ceasefire and discuss ways to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. He will listen to regional leaders, who will underline the need to restart peace talks aimed at achieving a two-state solution. He will recommit US support to that solution, but it is unlikely Blinken will do much more. The political vacuum in Israel, which is likely to take the country to a fifth general election in little more than two years, will not permit a new peace initiative, he will argue. Furthermore, in a press conference on Friday, Biden said there will be no peace until Israel’s neighbors recognize it as an independent Jewish state — a controversial demand that has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
One fundamental concern for the US and its Western and Arab allies is how to rehabilitate the PA and President Mahmoud Abbas after a series of political debacles that have eroded their standing among Palestinians. During the 11-day war, Biden made his first telephone call to Abbas since taking office. The White House says Biden “expressed his support for steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy the dignity, security, freedom, and economic opportunity that they deserve,” and highlighted the resumption of US aid to the Palestinians under his administration. Blinken also called Abbas and is expected to head to Ramallah to meet the Palestinian leader this week.
Abbas last month indefinitely postponed the scheduled legislative elections amid criticism by Palestinian factions. Now there is pressure on Abbas to form a national unity government that will include Hamas. Salvaging the PA is crucial to Israel as well as the US and its allies. But a growing number of Palestinians believe the PA has failed to deliver peace and end the occupation, while suppressing Palestinian voices, even going as far as coordinating with Israel to hunt down Palestinian activists.
While Abbas and the rest of the world continue to hang on to the two-state solution, fewer and fewer Israelis and Palestinians believe in its viability. A poll conducted jointly by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah and the Evens Program in Mediation and Conflict Management at Tel Aviv University in 2019 found that only 43 percent of Palestinians in the West Bank and 42 percent of Israelis support the two-state solution. Another poll, conducted in 2020 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, found that 58 percent in the West Bank and 62 percent in Gaza said that, even if a two-state solution is reached, conflict with Israel should continue until the Palestinians regain all territory.
Biden and his team know that Israel’s right-wing politicians will never accept a two-state solution and it is they who are likely to form the next government, with or without Netanyahu. For now, Biden will manage the conflict remotely and carefully rather than get personally involved. If change is to happen, it will have to take place inside Israel itself — and that is unlikely to occur in the near future.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010