US President Joe Biden’s four-day trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia last week achieved several positive outcomes. He clearly demonstrated that “the connection between the Israeli people and the American people is bone deep. It’s bone deep.” Through a number of initiatives, Biden was able to move forward the further integration of Israel into the region, including improvements in Israel’s relationship with Saudi Arabia.
When it came to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, his performance was significant through considerable actions, as we have seen by one US administration after another. However, in some ways it stayed in the same lane – stuck in a neutral gear that keeps both sides parked in the status quo – without addressing the permanent status issues.
The president came with a number of enhanced gifts for Palestinians: improved health care; bolstering the digital economy; easing travel between the West Bank and Jordan; large financial support for UNRWA cementing the United States as the largest donor to that United Nations organization; re-launching Israeli-Palestinian economic discussions and promoting steps to improve lives; addressing food insecurity; and fostering people to people ties with another grant announced from the Nita M. Lowey Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA). In addition, Biden continued to call for a two-state solution.
With all these far-reaching projects the president did not go far enough in his attempt to bring the two sides closer. The Israelis stand by their belief that conditions are not right for negotiations having seen that the failure of Camp David II led to the Second Intifada, and the endless fruitless negotiations during the Obama administration which included the 2014 war with Hamas. While Abbas calls for negotiations, it is unclear if he is ready to make the necessary difficult concessions. The same question can be asked of the Israelis.
Israel says the only option now is to “shrink the conflict,” meaning improve the lives of Palestinian through economic gains which is hoped will lead to less resistance to the occupation and thereby, in the Israelis' eyes, create the necessary conditions for eventual negotiations. While there is logic to such thinking, it can also be viewed– as it is by many Palestinians – as an attempt through economic payoff by Israel (with the financial aid of the US) to stay in control of all the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.
BIDEN HAD an excellent opportunity from his position as US president, during his visit to begin to change this seemingly intractable reality. For years, there was the belief that the Troubles in Northern Ireland could not end. That perception was altered with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. What paved the way, creating the requisite conditions, was the establishment of the International Fund for Ireland in 1986. That fund used a deliberate combination of economic, peace building, and reconciliation tools between Catholic and Protestant civil society to change relationships on the ground that trickled up to the political establishment.
As a member then of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, then-Senator Biden, drawing on his Irish roots and concern for Ireland, was key to the passage of that Fund. In June of last year Biden recalled, “It took a deep partnership between the UK, Ireland, and the US to support the people of Northern Ireland in bringing the Troubles to an end, and it will take a continued and ongoing partnership to advance and safeguard Northern Ireland’s stability and prosperity into the future.”
“It took a deep partnership between the UK, Ireland, and the US to support the people of Northern Ireland in bringing the Troubles to an end."US President Joe Biden
Tony Blair, former prime minister of the United Kingdom and cosignatory to the Good Friday Agreement, said that The Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland “didn’t begin or come to fruition in a vacuum. There were many great things that happened before we even got to the negotiations that set the context, laid the ground, created the environments for the negotiation to succeed. One of those things was the International Fund for Ireland... The Fund for Middle East Peace can provide exactly the same source of stability for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as it did for the Northern Ireland peace process.”
The question that needs to be asked is why Biden did not talk about or push for the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace when he was here last week? As the president said in Bethlehem, “Even if the ground is not right at this moment to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on trying to bring the Palestinians, Israelis and both sides closer together.” If conditions are not right for negotiations as we are told, rather than initiatives that in some ways become quick-fix treatments as the can is kicked further down the road of the status quo, would it not be better to try something that has a proven political and historic record?
FROM HIS support of the International Fund for Ireland over the decades Biden knows the game-changing effect that it had on Northern Ireland. That he did not find time to visit any Israeli-Palestinian people to people organization while here was a towering missed opportunity. Yes, there was the announcement while the president was here of two new MEPPA grants, not announced by the president but via a White House fact sheet issued in Washington.
And so the recipients from the Peres Center and AppleSeeds were not even in attendance. More than that, a picture with Biden at one of the over 150 Palestinian-Israeli People to People organizations of the Alliance for Middle East Peace would have sent a loud message of the importance of these institutions. A picture is worth a thousand words – a picture with the president of the United States at one of those establishments would have been worth ten thousand words.
While it was clear the pacing of his visit was meant for someone in his eightieth year with lots of downtime, truth be told better paced visits can benefit any leader no matter what their age. Having said that, that Biden could find time to visit Jewish athletes at the Maccabiah Games, but he did not carve out even 30 minutes out of a 48-hour trip to visit even one Israeli-Palestinian People to People organization was a lost opportunity which would have signaled a vital and different approach to this conflict. Ambassador Tom Nides should make such visits a priority of his time here – ideally asking Palestinian and Israeli officials to join him.
We can imagine next month an Israeli Jewish couple will stand under a huppah and marry, just as we can also imagine a Palestinian Muslim couple and a Palestinian Christian couple wed. The question we are left with in the wake of Biden’s visit is did his visit improve the chances that when the Palestinian and Israeli children of those couples grow up will there be a better relationship and political existence between the two peoples?
In some 20 years when the Israeli couple sends their children to the IDF, will it still be an army occupying Palestinian territory? And what of those Palestinian children – what will be their reality? For over 20 years, the Catholic and Protestant children have had the opportunity to grow up in a better reality than their parents. Don’t the Israeli and Palestinian children here deserve the same? If there is any hope for these children, then let President Biden show visionary leadership and courage by putting serious energy into the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. Let build him on the lessons from the establishment of the International Fund for Ireland that created the conditions for the hard work and decisions of the Good Friday Agreement to surface.
That International Fund sowed the seeds that the Good Friday Agreement was able to reap. President Biden has the power, through his office, to leave a legacy of substantive advancement for the lives of and relationships between Palestinians and Israelis through the establishment of an International Fund for Israeli-Palestinian Peace. That time is now.
The writer, a rabbi, teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies and at Bennington College.