Americans will pick their next president on November 3, and the results will likely affect Israeli-Palestinian relations and US policy toward that conflict and peacemaking efforts.
US policy on the peace process was relatively consistent over the years, with certain shifts of emphasis by different administrations and differences in the extent of US involvement. The Trump administration, however, has adopted several decisions testifying to a significant shift and departure from traditional US policy since 1967, and especially since the start of the Israel-PLO peace process in the 1990s.
President Donald Trump changed policy on key issues such as the status of Jerusalem, Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, settlements and the annexation idea. Furthermore, for the first time since the signing of the Oslo Accords, US ties with the Palestinian leadership have been severed, and the US has shuttered the PLO mission in Washington and cut off aid to the Palestinians.
Following the 2001 transition from president Clinton to president Bush, the new administration adopted a policy dubbed ABC – Anything but Clinton, announcing that it would not be as involved in the Mideast peace process. Eventually, however, the Bush administration advanced the road map for peace and the Annapolis process, both based on the Clinton administration’s principles, chief among them the two-state solution.
The Obama administration’s peace efforts, initially led by special envoy George Mitchell and then by secretary of state John Kerry, followed the same policy line. The dramatic shift by the Trump White House on several key foreign-policy issues (among them the nuclear agreement with Iran, relations with Russia and the Paris climate-change agreement) will allow a new administration to justify with relative ease a reversal of US policy and a return to the pre-Trump era. On the other hand, an administration led by Democrat Joe Biden would not necessarily reverse all the decisions adopted by his Republican predecessor on the Israeli-Palestinian issue in the short term.
On the US Embassy move to Jerusalem, for example, Biden has already announced he would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv, although he promised to reopen the US consulate in east Jerusalem, which served for years as the focal point for Washington’s ties with the Palestinians but was merged into the Jerusalem embassy under Trump. On the settlement issue, Biden is expected to revert to the Obama administration’s policy and to lead a tough line against their expansion.
In this regard, it is worth recalling the US-Israel crisis that broke out in March 2010 when Israel announced the construction of new housing units in the east Jerusalem neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo on the very day that then-vice president Biden was visiting the city. Biden is also expected to reiterate previous unambiguous US support for the two-state solution, an issue on which the Trump administration has waffled, and to reject out of hand the idea of annexation in the West Bank.
If Biden wins, will he dive in and try to revive the Israeli-Palestinian peace process? While there is no way of knowing, we should keep in mind several points.
First, the deep health and economic crisis in the US will likely focus Biden’s attention, at least during the initial part of his term, on domestic issues, leaving his secretary of state to handle foreign affairs (such was the case when Barack Obama took office in 2009 on the heels of an economic crisis). Even without a domestic crisis, the Israeli-Palestinian issue is not expected to be a high priority in US foreign policy, at least not at the beginning of a Biden presidency.
Biden’s pick for secretary of state would have a significant impact on the subject. Another important indication for Biden’s intentions regarding the Israeli-Palestinian issue would be whether he decides to appoint a special envoy for the Middle East peace process, as did his predecessors. Clinton appointed Dennis Ross, Obama picked George Mitchell, and Trump named Jason Greenblatt.
SECOND, A Democratic administration is likely to set aside Trump’s “Deal of the Century” without discussing it.
One key change a Biden administration would make in the short term is to reconstitute Washington’s dialogue with the Palestinians, a move the Palestinian leadership is likely to accept. The sides will have to agree on a plan paving the way for this shift, possibly including American declarations about a return to traditional US policy and concrete steps such as re-opening the PLO mission in Washington.
A Biden administration is also expected to re-align itself with European policy on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, easing the tensions created during the Trump presidency, a shift that could also enable the renewed activity of the Quartet or some other international mechanism to advance peace.
An additional element relates to the role of the Arab world in the peace process. While the Obama administration sought to link its efforts vis-à-vis the Arab world with those on the Palestinian issue, the Trump administration de-linked these two channels. Biden has welcomed Israel’s agreement with the United Arab Emirates and is expected to back normalization measures, but he will probably re-link the two channels in the spirit of the Arab Peace Initiative.
In a Biden victory scenario, it would be interesting to monitor internal Democratic Party processes regarding policy directions. Biden and his vice presidential nominee Kamala Harris are affiliated with the centrist, more conservative camp in the party, on Israel-related issues, too. However, the more progressive camp had gained an important foothold in the party in recent years, demanding a tougher US stand on the question of the territories.
If Trump wins in November, will he continue current policy or introduce changes? The question will be determined to some extent by the identity of the officials appointed to lead the issue and the question of whether Trump will keep on his current Mideast envoy Jared Kushner and Ambassador David Friedman. A key question in this regard is whether the annexation idea would return to the agenda or whether the administration would set aside this controversial issue in order to expand the Arab world’s emerging normalization with Israel.
Trump has reportedly pledged to the Emirates to withhold support for Israeli annexation moves until 2024. Another question that comes up in terms of US Mideast policy under a reelected Trump is whether the administration would abandon the Palestinian issue completely or try to renew ties with Ramallah. The answer depends to some extent on whether Arab states considering normalization with Israel would condition progress with Israel on progress with the Palestinians.
A Trump victory would be a harsh blow to the Palestinian leadership and could prompt one of two reactions: an attempt to renew ties with Washington or radicalization and efforts to forge unity with Hamas. It would also be interesting to see whether other players, chief among them the Europeans, would step in to fill the diplomatic vacuum created by a second Trump term and lead an initiative of their own. This has not happened so far, but another Trump victory could constitute a real catalyst for such developments.
The Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic process has been stalled since the failure of Kerry’s peace initiative in 2013-2014. The stalemate endured throughout the Trump administration, which was the first US administration since 1993 that did not orchestrate a summit between Israeli and Palestinian leaders. Instead, Trump turned to advancing relations between Israel and the Gulf states.
US policy is obviously not the only factor affecting the Israeli-Palestinian arena. Other variables include domestic, regional and international developments. However, the results of the US elections, especially given Trump’s deviation from previous US policy, will undoubtedly significantly affect the Palestinian issue.
The writer is director of the program on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking at Mitvim-The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a postdoctoral fellow at Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Leonard Davis Institute for International Relations.