A Biden presidency resurrects ’67 lines, Palestinian state

SETTLEMENT AFFAIRS: Biden has long considered West Bank settlements to be a stumbling block to peace, consistent with his Republican and Democratic predecessors – save for US President Donald Trump.

A SECTION of the security barrier that runs along the Shuafat refugee camp. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
A SECTION of the security barrier that runs along the Shuafat refugee camp.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
US President-elect Joe Biden’s presidency will erase many of the gains the Israeli Right made over the last four years with regard to Israeli sovereignty over Area C of the West Bank – and reintroduce the concept of a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict based on the pre-1967 lines.
It is no accident that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took time, during his speech in the Knesset Tuesday about the normalization deal with Bahrain, to speak against the pre-1967 lines.
Biden has long considered West Bank settlements to be a stumbling block to peace. In that way, he is consistent with both his Republican and Democratic predecessors – save for US President Donald Trump.
The divide between Israel and the United States with regard to the settlements dates back to the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War and has not shifted.
Outside of the last four years of the Trump administration, the United States has never legitimized Jewish building over the pre-1967 lines, including in east Jerusalem.
The US wavered between considering settlements illegal or illegitimate.
Israel, however, was able to push forward to lay the groundwork for its civilian hold on the West Bank with the creation of new settlements, in spite of the friction it created with the US, until the Oslo Accords under president Bill Clinton, which ushered in the era of the two-state solution.
Clinton and the Oslo years, 1993-2000
The Oslo era created a new parameter, the terms of which have defined how the conflict has been discussed for almost the last 30 years.
Prior to the signing of the 1993 Oslo I Accord, Israel managed to create some 100 settlements. But the population was fairly small – less than 100,000 people.
Once the accord was signed, it signified that Israel had agreed to a future Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza. Part of this understanding was a tacit nod in the direction of limited or restricted settlement growth.
Oslo divided the West Bank into three different zones – areas A, B and C. It allowed for the first creation of a Palestinian government, known as the Palestinian Authority, recognized by both Israel and the US.
Further, it placed areas A and B, totaling 40% of the West Bank, under the auspices of the PA. It also allowed for Israeli military rule over Area C, the other 60% of the West Bank, where all the Israeli settlements were located.
Under Oslo, there was an understanding with the US that Israel would largely halt the creation of new settlements, but could continue to build up existing communities, particularly those in areas that were perceived to likely be part of a final-status solution. These were large population centers, known as the blocs; an exact map or definition of the blocs was never created.
Israel and the Palestinians were expected to develop borders for a two-state solution, which, once finalized, would mean that Israel would withdraw from much of Area C and hand it over to the Palestinians.
While a small number of settlements were created during the rest of the Clinton period, the focus shifted to growth and expansion of the settlements.
The record of construction during the Oslo years, particularly the end, remains unparalleled. By 2000, when Clinton left office, the population had doubled to 200,000 according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Separately, the settlers, with the tacit support of the government, created some 100 illegal West Bank communities, known as outposts, to ensure continued settlement expansion in the future.
In his final months, Clinton created a set of parameters that allowed for Israel to retain only some 4% to 6% of the West Bank, where he estimated that 80% of the settlers lived. Negotiations held under his watch, however, never led to any resolution.
Bush, the road map and Annapolis, 2000-2008
Former US president George W. Bush did not recognize the Clinton parameters and instead created his own process, called the road map peace plan, which did not distinguish between settlement blocs and those communities outside the blocs, known as isolated settlements.
His road map set out a timetable for the creation of a two-state resolution to the conflict, which, among other things, called for a complete freeze on settlement activity, irrespective of the location of the settlements.
Former prime minister Ariel Sharon was able to soften that stance by unilaterally withdrawing from Gaza, destroying the 21 settlements there and four in northern Samaria. In return, he exacted a pledge in writing – the Bush-Sharon letter, which was then affirmed by a congressional resolution – that recognizes that Israel would not have to withdraw from the settlement blocs.
Attempts to resume negotiations toward the resolution of the conflict were interrupted by the Second Intifada and the Israeli withdrawal plan. In his last year in office, Bush made a second attempt to resolve the conflict. He initiated the Annapolis process with former prime minister Ehud Olmert and PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
The process examined a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines – and on the Israeli side included settlement blocs. Olmert was the first Israeli prime minister to accept the pre-1967 lines as a basis for talks. His territorial map has been the narrowest of the entire negotiating period since 1993.
Olmert continued to build and expand existing settlements during that time. The US chastised Israel publicly for the building, but took no action. Population growth continued, so that when Bush left office, there were 290,400 settlers according to the Central Bureau of Statistics.
Part of the growth was driven by the creation in the 1990s of two haredi (ultra-Orthodox) settlement cities, Modi’in Illit and Betar Illit. They are both located on the Green Line and are expected to be part of Israel in any final-status resolution of the conflict.
Obama and a settlement freeze
Former president Barack Obama began, where Bush had also started, with the expectation of a settlement freeze and a belief in a two-state resolution based on the pre-1967 lines.  He effectively held that the West Bank territory should largely be reserved for a Palestinian state. Viewed through that lens, settlement construction there was an obstacle to peace.
He rejected the concept of settlement blocs and, as a result, refused to honor the US commitment to the Bush-Sharon letter, even though it had the bipartisan support of Congress.
During Obama’s terms, the PA insisted it would hold negotiations with Israel only if there was a settlement freeze. Israel agreed to a 10-month moratorium on settlement housing starts, which lasted from November 2009 to September 2010.
Obama was briefly able to hold direct talks between the two sides in September, but they fell apart when Israel refused to extend the moratorium. His administration was able to resume a limited nine-month negotiation process which ended in April 2014 and was never resumed for the rest of his presidency.
Although he never insisted on another settlement freeze, Obama held Israel to the standard that no settlement building was acceptable, routinely condemning all such activity.
Netanyahu was initially conservative with respect to settlement building, but he became bolder as the Palestinians pursued unilateral statehood recognition instead of talks.
Most significantly, Netanyahu began to consider ways to authorize the outposts, including by declaring some of them as new neighborhoods of existing settlements. Three of them were transformed into new settlements in a government decision. The frozen peace process, combined with continued harsh US condemnation of Israeli settlement activity, significantly strengthened the Israeli Right’s campaign to annex the settlements.
During its last month, the Obama administration abstained and did not veto UN Security Council Resolution 2334 which condemned Israeli settlement activity.
When he left office, there were almost 400,000 settlers in the West Bank.
Trump, sovereignty and the recognition of Jewish rights in Judea and Samaria
President Trump revolutionized US policy on the settlements, taking it from the position under UN Security Council Resolution 2334, which held that they were illegal under international law, to one that held that such settlement was not inconsistent with international law.
Resolution 2334 demanded that the international community distinguish in its dealings between sovereign and non-sovereign Israel, a move that allowed for the boycott of settlement entities and goods.
The US declared that it no longer held such a distinction. Its officials, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Ambassador David Friedman, have recognized Israel’s historical and religious rights to the territory, which they refer to as Judea and Samaria and not the West Bank.
Trump’s administration allowed Israel to build and develop the settlements. It also published a peace plan, along with a map, that allowed for Israel to annex up to 30% of the West Bank, where all the settlers were. But Trump complied with a United Arab Emirates demand to suspend annexation in exchange for the normalization deal with Israel, and now the annexation of West Bank settlements may never come to fruition.
During his four-year tenure, which ends on January 20, Israel authorized two completely new settlements, only one of which was built. It deposited plans for the controversial E1 project of 3,412 settler homes in an unbuilt area of Ma’aleh Adumim.
But while the rate of planning was high, fewer homes were built than during the Obama years. Not all the population data are available, but according to the Central Bureau of Statistics, it was at 441,600 in 2019.
What to expect from Biden
President-elect Biden is expected to return to the general, broad concepts held by his predecessors prior to Trump. Biden, who was a longtime senator and then served as Obama’s vice president, has long spoken of his opposition to settlement activity.
Like Obama, Biden holds that Area C should be part of a future Palestinian state and that settlement building is a stumbling block to peace.
But during the campaign he never fully clarified the nuances of his position. He relied on general statements that rejected any Israeli unilateral annexation plans and called for a halt to settlement activity. Biden has specifically highlighted E1 as a project he would oppose.
But it is unclear whether he will return to the policy in which the US expressed displeasure at settlement activity but allowed Israel to continue, or whether he will attempt, as Obama did, to pressure Israel to halt all settlement building.
Biden, both in his statements and his past actions, has left the door open for the belief that he could accept the blocs or some modified form of them.
He is among the senators that voted for the 2004 congressional resolution supporting the Bush-Sharon letter guaranteeing Israel that it would not have to withdraw from the blocs.
In an interview with The New York Times in February, he affirmed his support for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines, but explained that he supported the Israeli retention of the longtime settlements, not defining what he meant.
For the Israeli Right, the setback is enormous, given that this summer Israel seemed to be on the verge of annexation – a possibility that now seems all but buried.
The degree of Biden’s opposition to the settlements will determine the extent to which they can continue to develop, if at all.
It will also set the contours for one of the potential friction points between Biden and Netanyahu and become one of the factors that mark the nature of their relationship.