When presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president, it was no secret that his role in Israel policy was largely to reassure Israel’s government and their supporters in the United States that Obama had their back. It was Biden who was tasked with reminding them that under Obama they enjoyed unprecedented financial, military, and intelligence support and coordination.
Biden champions the long-standing bipartisan consensus on Israel that has receded during the rule of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Decidedly pro-Israel in his views, he supports the two-state solution as envisioned in the Oslo Accords, is reproachful of recent Israeli efforts to undermine that solution and prioritizes Israel’s "Jewish character" above Palestinian rights.
Is 2020 Biden the same man? His need to accommodate the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has raised hopes that he might be pressed further left on Palestinian rights. As I pointed out recently, there is no doubt that his policies are far preferable to Donald Trump’s on many issues, and the plight of the Palestinians, which has gotten dramatically worse under the Trump administration, is no exception.
But there’s a lot of room between Trump’s Middle East policy and one which would address Palestinian rights and bring peace and a better future to all who live in Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza Strip. Trump’s team, with its strong connections to the far right in Israel, has worked with Israel’s settler community to craft a policy that offers mere crumbs to Palestinians. Compared to that, Biden’s opposition to unilateral Israeli annexation of chunks of the West Bank seems quite forward-thinking.
Biden is adamantly opposed to annexation. As he said to the annual conference of the American-Israel Public Affairs Committee in March, "Israel, I think, has to stop the threats of annexation and settlement activity… those moves are taking Israel further from its democratic values, undermining support for Israel in the United States….We can’t let Israel become another issue that divides Republicans and Democrats. We can’t let anything undermine the [U.S.-Israel] partnership."
This reasoning — that Israel should refrain from unilateral annexation not because it infringes the rights of Palestinians, but because it erodes support for Israel itself — leads to Biden’s refusal to exert material pressure on Israel to stop annexation. Beyond warning it of consequences which Israeli decision-makers are already well aware of, Biden has made it clear that he will do nothing to prevent Israel from taking this step.
That was reaffirmed on Monday by Biden’s top foreign policy adviser, Antony Blinken. Speaking in a web broadcast organized by the so-called Democratic Majority for Israel, Blinken stated bluntly that Biden “would not tie military assistance to Israel to any political decisions it makes, full stop.”
Blinken made the point when asked about former Democratic contenders who said they would use military aid to Israel as leverage if they needed to in order to prevent reckless Israeli decisions. Biden simply won’t do it, no matter what Israel does. He will argue, he will debate, he will cajole and try to convince them — behind closed doors as much as possible, Blinken said — but there will be no pressure. In practice, that’s a blank check.
Biden’s pro-Israel audience
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DMFI was formed just last year by Democratic supporters of Israel who observed that AIPAC and other pro-Israel groups were losing their influence in the Democratic Party and saw liberal pro-Israel groups like J Street as soft on the Palestinians and Israeli strategic concerns. They oppose annexation as well, but fully blame the Palestinians for the lack of negotiations and said Trump’s proposed plan for Israel and Palestine “meets many of Israel’s legitimate security needs and should be the occasion for restarting direct talks between the parties.”
In the DMFI discussion, Blinken said that Biden “would insist that the Palestinians refrain from incitement and insist that they recognize the right and reality of a Jewish state of Israel.” This was a major theme of Blinken’s talk, and it is telling.
The insistence that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state is a major obstacle to ending the Israeli occupation and finding a resolution to the conflict. The Palestine Liberation Organization, which is the only body that can represent the Palestinian people — and is officially acknowledged as such by Israel — has twice granted formal recognition of Israel’s sovereignty and right to exist in peace, once in 1988, as Ronald Reagan acknowledged at the time, and again in 1993. Yet Israel has repeatedly insisted on Palestinian re-recognition until finally, that morphed into demanding that Palestinians recognize Israel “as a Jewish state.”
This demand surfaced in 2007, when then-Prime Minister Ehud Olmert brought it up prior to the Annapolis peace conference. His successor, Benjamin Netanyahu, has made it a staple of his obstructive diplomacy. Its appeal to Israelis is clear: if the Palestinians granted such recognition it would implicitly mean giving up on the right of return for Palestinian refugees, an issue which is a non-starter for both Israeli and American leaders, but which lies at the very heart of the Palestinian national movement. That is why the demand for recognition of Israel as a Jewish state is anathema to Palestinians, even when recognizing its right to exist was politically feasible.
Anyone who wishes to broker peace cannot make this demand of the Palestinians, no matter how much Israelis may want it. This should be obvious on its face. Jews view the creation of Israel as their return to ancestral land, while Palestinians see it as the cataclysmic loss of their homeland. A mediator or broker must work with the competing narratives; if they try to advocate one or the other, they disqualify themselves.
Yet Blinken and Biden are insisting that Palestinians accept the Israeli view. It is a non-starter, and their position illustrates how far Biden is from being capable of restarting diplomacy between Israel and the PLO, much less bringing it to a conclusion. Expecting Palestinians to recognize Israel as a Jewish state would not only mean forfeiting the refugees’ right of return but would also mean acknowledging that Israel is justified in treating its Palestinian citizens as second class.
No one would expect Israel to adopt the Palestinian position on this question, and if a potential mediator tried to convince Israel to do so, few would argue with Israel’s disqualifying that party as a mediator. Yet that is exactly what Biden expects of the Palestinians. It didn’t work during the Obama administration, and it won’t work now.
Biden has made it clear that he wants to find ways to restore funding to the Palestinian Authority and the UN Relief and Works Agency. That will not be easy, due to recent legislation placing conditions on aid to the Palestinians that they are unlikely to meet, but his support for the old “peace process” means he will try to find a way. That alone will provide some relief for Palestinians from the policies of the Trump administration. But being better than Trump is a very low bar, and hearing Blinken’s words made it clearer than ever that advocates for Palestinian rights will need to mobilize as never before under a Joe Biden administration.