US President Joe Biden has been slow to make amends with the Palestinian Authority, with which there have been no high-level talks in the close to three months since he took office.
Israel might have anxiously counted down the days, nervous at a crisis with the White House, because it took Biden almost a month to call Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, with whom he has a four-decade friendship.
But almost three months into his presidency Biden has not called PA President Mahmoud Abbas.
Even when the Biden administration prepared to make a major policy move in the PA’s favor this week by restoring American financial assistance to the Palestinians, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken discussed the matter with Foreign Minister Gabi Ashkenazi, with whom he has now spoken three times.
Blinken, however, didn’t call PA Foreign Minister Riad Malki, with whom he has never spoken since he took office.
At the UN on Wednesday, PA Ambassador Riyad Mansour said he had learned about the possible funding restoration from Reuters.
For a president who promised to make amends with the PA, which broke off contact with the Trump administration at the end of 2017 over its recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, Biden has taken his time.
Nor has he dismissed every pro-Israeli Trump era stance. He has been clear that he intends to keep the US Embassy in Jerusalem now that Trump relocated it there in 2017, and his administration has affirmed that it considers Jerusalem to be Israel’s capital. The Biden administration has not similarly affirmed that it believes that east Jerusalem is the capital of a future Palestinian state.
The Biden administration has hit other pro-Israel notes, pledging allegiance to Israel’s security, stating that the International Criminal Court lacks the jurisdiction to adjudicate Israeli war crimes suits and promising to support Israel at the United Nations.
In addition, it has spoken out against Palestinian incitement and violence and promised to push for the PA to halt its monthly payments to terrorists in jail and their families, as well as to families of those slain committing terrorist acts.
Even more importantly, it has been mindful of singling Israel out, making sure to answer questions about alleged Israeli misdeeds by making statements about its expectations for both Israelis and Palestinians, so that it avoids the appearance of needlessly chastising Israel.
In this way, Biden, who served as vice president under former US president Barack Obama and who has a long pro-Israeli history, has charted a course for himself that differs from that of the Obama administration’s ideology of a strict adherence to a two-state resolution based on the pre-1967 lines when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Trump era was unique in US-Israeli politics in that the two governments were almost completely synchronized in their global policy outlooks, particularly on Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Biden might not bring with him an immediate cold blast of Obama-era politics, but for Israelis who know the man famous for disagreeing with Netanyahu, their showdown is not a question of if, but when.
In some ways Biden’s soft style, part of an attempt to return civility to politics in the aftermath of Trump-era demagoguery, is disarming.
Those on the Left will of course feel that Biden has not gone far enough, fast enough, and hope that he holds Israel to account. Those on the Right are concerned that these last months have simply been a short honeymoon period.
It is hard to match the drama over the pending US-Israeli diplomatic conflict over Iran, with the Biden administration holding talks to return to the 2015 nuclear deal, while Israel allegedly attacked an Iranian ship in the Red Sea.
Secondary to the Iran drama, the pending Biden-Israel showdown began in earnest over the last 10 days, with a series of small steps that might seem like a few small stones rolling down a hill, but which could ultimately become an avalanche.
From the start, of course, the Biden administration began to undue the philosophical underpinnings of the Trump administration’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As a first step, Biden immediately returned to the Obama-era language of speaking of settlement activity as a stumbling block to peace, whereas the Trump administration had legitimized settlement activity and focused on Palestinian terrorism as one of the main issue.
Then the situation remained static, until the last 10 days, when the Biden administration continued to reframe the conflict in the direction of the Obama era.
Last week Biden’s administration reintroduced the word “occupation” to describe the West Bank, all of the West Bank, including the settlements. This week, the administration agreed to relaunch a system of providing financial assistance to the Palestinians, including to its security services, eliminated by Trump, even though the PA has not ended its monthly stipends for terrorists. To date the administration has spoken of a financial package of $290 million.
The only element of Trump-era prohibition on financing that remains is that there will be no direct aid to the PA outside of security.
Part of that assistance, $150 million, is earmarked for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which Israel has accused of incitement and mismanagement and of cementing in place a definition of Palestinian refugees that ultimately dooms the conflict. Israel believes that Palestinian refugee status should be granted only to the 750,000 Palestinians who fled their homes as a result of the 1948 War of Independence. The Trump administration agreed, believing that if it could minimize the refugee issue, it would be easier to resolve the conflict.
UNRWA grants refugee status to the descendants of those initial refugees, such that it now offers humanitarian service to 5.7 million refugees in east Jerusalem, Gaza, the West Bank, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
Among the Palestinian demands is a right of return for refugees to sovereign Israel, a move that would make it impossible for Israel to retain its Jewish ethnic majority.
The restoration of assistance to UNRWA is seen as endorsement of a maximal refugee status, in a way that would make it difficult to resolve this core issue should negotiations restart.
It was also the opening salvo in Biden’s bid to reestablish ties with the Palestinians.
JOEL BRAUNOLD, managing director of the S. Daniel Abraham Center for Middle East Peace, said that “the restarting of assistance both fulfills President Biden’s campaign pledge and congressional appropriations law and marks the first step in the reestablishment of US-Palestinian bilateral relations.”
He added that financial assistance was the easiest part of the relationship to restart.
“Moving forward, I would expect questions about reopening the consulate in east Jerusalem, terminating the 1987 Anti-Terrorism Law, and finding a solution to the PLO Mission in DC to dominate, with each presenting a far more complex legal and political challenge,” Braunold said.
Former ambassador to the US Michael Oren said he was disappointed that the Biden administration took such a step without asking for a gesture in return.
“In return for restoring some of this aid, they could have received something like a Palestinian commitment to fight incitement in the Palestinian media and the textbook, or even for them to come back to the negotiation table.
“I don’t think any type of quid pro quo was given. It’s unfortunate because the long-standing US policy of incentivizing the Palestinians not to negotiate and rewarding them for leaving the table appears to be returning,” Oren said.
He warned that, moving forward, the Biden administration would increasingly take a harsh tone with Israel over Israeli settlement activity, possibly even allowing for another resolution against them at the Security Council.
Netanyahu also spoke of a pending battle to support the settlements, when the Knesset was sworn in his week.
Biden has also introduced in these 10 days what will be new elements of conflict with Israel and creating his own nuanced framework for the conflict, by adding in expectations – not expressed by past presidents – of respect for Palestinian democracy, freedom and security.
But the Biden-Israel showdown will differ, in the end, not in the details but in the context, which in the past was focused on ensuring that both sides come to a negotiating table and remain there.
Here, there is still no expectation that Biden will propose a peace process, even once he establishes a relationship with the Palestinians. He has not set out that goal for himself in the immediate future, nor could he do so even if he wanted to, because the Palestinians are heading to elections and the Israelis appear far from having a government.
Biden’s goal here will be to maintain the status quo, a situation that is impossible for Israel to uphold. It is likely, moving forward, that this would include no major settlement building, if not an eventual freeze on projects, no demolition of Palestinian homes and improved freedom of movement and access for Palestinians.
It won’t be a dramatic showdown at first, just a series of almost daily skirmishes, which will eventually create increasing tension with no end in sight. The conflict cannot be frozen nor at this point can it be ended, so it can only erupt into an avalanche that will test the otherwise tight US-Israeli bonds.