Washington Watch: Memo to Joe Biden

The Palestinians are no longer the pupik (see: Leo Rosten) of the Middle East, if ever they were.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-US vice president Joe Biden leave after a joint statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010. (photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and then-US vice president Joe Biden leave after a joint statement to the media at the Prime Minister’s Residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010.
(photo credit: RONEN ZVULUN/REUTERS)
Mr. President-elect, if you’re thinking of restarting Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations, don’t bother. You’ll be the only one at the table.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas may try to butter you up – Bibi has already phoned, and Abbas wants to – by telling you how much they desire peace and how sincere they are, but you’re a good Irishman who recognizes blarney when he hears it.
Tell them the lawyer in you demands hard evidence, not more empty rhetoric and empty promises. Make it bipartisan by citing the words of former secretary of state Jim Baker, who told the Israelis (it applies equally to the Palestinians), “When you’re serious about peace, call us,” giving them the White House switchboard number (it’s still 202/456-1414). (That was 1990 prior to Oslo and the Palestinian Authority.)
Don’t hold your breath; chances of that happening are about the same as Donald Trump calling you to graciously concede defeat and offer his cooperation in the transition.
The Palestinians are no longer the pupik (see: Leo Rosten) of the Middle East, if ever they were. Their conflict with Israel lost any centrality it may have had when George W. Bush invaded Iraq in 2003, and the 2020 Abraham Accords sealed it. The Palestinians have lost their veto power for blocking progress between Arabs and Israel until their demands were met.
You’ll have a chance to talk tachlis (see: Rosten again) to both Netanyahu and Abbas, though you should take your time so they don’t get the mistaken impression that they are that important and you are making them a high priority. Their conflict is not the root cause of instability in the Middle East nor the key to peace in the region. The Gulf states have publicly affirmed that. They understand that Iran is the real threat, that Israel shares their assessment, and they want to know that you do as well.
You are right to want to restore relations with the Palestinian Authority and resume economic and humanitarian assistance. And they need to hear your commitment to the two-state approach of earlier presidents. You come to the job with more knowledge and experience on these issues than any president. That also gives you the stature to give the boot to any demeaning foreign leader who tries to give you a history lecture on live television.
Vice President-elect Kamala Harris said it well: “We are committed to a two-state solution, and we will oppose any unilateral steps that undermine that goal. We will also oppose annexation and settlement expansion.”
Ghaith al-Omari, a former Palestinian negotiator, called the Abraham Accords a “win-win-win.” Despite their complaints, the Palestinians benefit because Netanyahu’s threat to annex up to 40% of the West Bank is shelved, which means the two-state option (which he opposes) is preserved, and the Arab states, whose ties Netanyahu values, are better positioned to help the Palestinians than those which boycott Israel.
ISRAEL’S NEW Arab friends are pragmatists, not Zionists, and they make no secret that they are running out of patience with their Palestinian brethren. Saudi Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the former ambassador to Washington, called Palestinian leaders “failures” who repeatedly missed opportunities to make peace. He accused them of aligning themselves with Iran and Turkey against the pro-American Gulf states.
The Palestinians, having made it their mission to isolate and delegitimize Israel, now find themselves the ones isolated, with their historic allies turning on them, or at least turning indifferent. The secular Sunni states have been warming relations with Israel and making no secret of their disdain for the Palestinian leadership, while still expressing support for their cause.
A top UAE official told Israel Hayom that the Palestinians must understand that “the diplomatic and geopolitical reality in the Middle East has changed.”
That will require new leadership in both Jerusalem and Ramallah. Nothing serious can happen until new hands take over the respective helms and develop their own policies.
As for Netanyahu, his vision is focused only on staying out of jail. Israelis today seems content with the status quo, and after three elections in just over a year, they’ve voted in far-right governments opposed to Palestinian statehood. When faced with a choice between the views of religious and settler extremists and Israelis favoring a negotiated, two-state settlement, Netanyahu is the soul of consistency, always choosing the former.
Abbas, now 85 and in the 15th year of his four-year term, is in no hurry to call new elections or groom a successor. Former US diplomat Dan Kurtzer called the Palestinian leadership “sclerotic and devoid of creative diplomacy or politics.” The badly divided Palestinian movement is roughly split between the secular nationalist Fatah and Islamist rejectionist Hamas. Israelis rightly ask, if the Palestinians can’t make peace with each other, how can they make peace with us?
You have a solid record of support for Israel and in the Jewish community, which gave you nearly 80% of its votes. All of Trump’s pandering to Israel, all his gifts (which he admitted were really for the Evangelicals), and his warm embrace of Netanyahu (who’s been a Republican longer than Trump) didn’t cost you any votes. Israel is no longer a central issue for Jewish voters, whose top priorities are also yours: fighting the pandemic, repairing the economy, providing affordable healthcare and protecting the environment.
And with a raging pandemic at home and economic repercussions that will last for generations, not to mention a planet-threatening environmental crisis, why devote your stretched-to-the-limit resources to two parties that have no interest in real negotiations?
When the Israelis and Palestinians can convince you that they are ready to get serious about making peace, you can help them most by being an honest broker. The United States can be a catalyst to bring together two sides when they themselves take the first steps, as evidenced by Israel’s treaties with Egypt, Jordan, the Gulf states and even the Palestinians at Oslo. The US role is not initiator but deal-closer.
As Baker and others have said, we can’t want peace more than the Israelis and Palestinians themselves do. So, Mr. President-elect, this is a good time for some benign neglect.