As the United States turns the page on President Donald Trump’s tumultuous one-term presidency, and welcomes President Joe Biden’s administration, Palestinians are cautiously optimistic that the new US administration will bring with it winds of change.
The Palestinians “expect sanity, they expect civility, and that doesn’t mean that the Biden administration and the Palestinian leadership or the Palestinian people will see eye to eye. Joe Biden is a familiar name to Palestinians,” according to political analyst Nour Odeh, who served as the Palestinian Authority government spokeswoman under former Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.
“They understand that he is closely aligned with Israel,” she told The Media Line.
Odeh said that Biden will serve the interests of the United States, and that he will realign the US closer to the international consensus on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, while departing from the “illegal positions that the Trump administration took, including violating its own obligations as a Security Council member.”
It’s not about expecting that Biden will have a magic wand, he won’t; or that Biden is coming to save the Palestinians, he won’t. But at least he’ll be someone with whom dialogue is possible
With a new administration comes a new foreign policy, Odeh said.
“It’s not about expecting that Biden will have a magic wand, he won’t; or that Biden is coming to save the Palestinians, he won’t. But at least he’ll be someone with whom dialogue is possible,” she said.
Palestinian American business consultant and independent political analyst Sam Bahour, who is based in the West Bank city of Ramallah, told The Media Line that the Israeli government under Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has “used” the Trump administration presence to “bulldoze, literally, forward by more settlement building.”
The Biden administration inherits several domestic issues that demand immediate attention, such as the deep racial divide, the struggling economy, and a pandemic that has killed more than 400,000 Americans, as well as a vaccine that desperately needs to be delivered. All that, Odeh says, relegates the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to the bottom of the agenda.
“I think it’s already been made clear and public from President-elect Biden’s team that it is not part of the first set of priorities that President Biden has set out to do in his first 100 days. Sadly, he is inheriting not only a crumbled foreign policy as far as the US is concerned, but a crumbling reality in all aspects of governance,” Bahour said.
“I believe they will use this lull in the beginning of the Biden Administration to continue doing just that, which is creating more facts on the ground to make it even more difficult for President Biden to take any constructive action forward,” he said.
Biden’s nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, said on Tuesday that the new administration will not reverse decisions made by the former president, but will seek a state for the Palestinians.
Asked at his confirmation hearing by Sen. Ted Cruz if the United States will continue its stance on Jerusalem and maintain its embassy, Blinken said without hesitation “Yes and yes.”
President Trump moved the US embassy to Jerusalem in 2018, and recognized the city holy to Jews, Muslims and Christians as Israel’s capital.
Odeh said Blinken’s answer is not a good start to the Biden administration.
“So, the US will continue to defy United Nations Security Council resolutions in that regard, but I do think that the Trump plan along with the thinking, along with a group of ideological fundamentalists, no longer have room in the upcoming official American discourse,” she said.
Blinken indicated that Biden would try harder to pursue a separate Palestinian state but acknowledged the difficulties.
“The only way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish, democratic state, and to give the Palestinians a state to which they are entitled, is through the so-called two-state solution,” Blinken said during the hearing.
But, he added, “I think realistically it’s hard to see near-term prospects for moving forward on that.”
“What would be important is to make sure that neither party takes steps that make the already difficult process even more challenging,” he said.
Odeh concedes that not all the decisions made by former President Trump will be reversed.
“Maybe some elements of the so-called Trump plan will creep into US policy, that is likely, especially since we have heard Biden welcome the normalization between Arab countries and Israel, but I don’t think that the outlook, the world view – that the perverse world view of Trump – will exist in the Biden administration,” she said.
These moves infuriated the Palestinians, but they don’t think President Biden will reverse many of them.
“I think that the Trump legacy just like Trump himself are now radioactive in US politics, and I do expect that the Biden administration will roll back some of the measures,” said Odeh.
President Trump also cut off all US financial aid to UNRWA – the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, and the Palestinian Authority. But, Bahour says, with a Biden administration in the White House they expect some changes.
“I would imagine he will start by opening up the funding faucet back to the Palestinian side, … making sure the Palestinian Authority doesn’t collapse, and maybe supporting UNRWA to make sure the refugee community doesn’t collapse. A collapse doesn’t serve anybody’s interest across the board,” he said.
Trump went against international consensus on the two-state solution, an accepted framework and resolution to the conflict by the majority of the world, that led to a boycott by the Palestinian Authority of the Trump administration.
“I don’t think that there is anything else on the table but the two-state solution, not just for the Americans but for the international community, and still for the largest collective of Palestinians according to opinion polls,” said Odeh, who recognizes that talk of a two-state solution by Blinken is a step in the right direction, but it’s not enough.
“Rhetoric is not enough, so to state that you are committed to the two-state solution, as governments around the world have done for the past thirty or more years, is clearly not enough because Israel is de facto annexing land, de facto making this solution impossible. The question really is, will Blinken and the administration follow up on that? Will they adopt policies and actions that actually will make this solution possible,” Odeh said.
She added: “If they defend it with actions, sure, they will have credibility. If they just talk about it, and let Netanyahu run amuck and continue to build settlements and slap them on the face, one slap after another as he’s done already before the swearing-in ceremony … we are going to get nowhere and that is never a good place to be in this region.”
On Wednesday, an Israeli watchdog group said that Israel had issued tenders for 2,500 new settler homes.
The Trump White House rejected assertions that Israeli settlements on Palestinian land were illegal and an obstacle to peace. In fact, former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo visited the northern West Bank settlement of Psagot in November.
We are no longer interested … in going into a cigar-filled back room, trying to wheel the deal outside of the realm of international law. That was called the Oslo peace process; it failed utterly. Moving forward, we have to have a legally bound parameter that makes sense to be able to enter negotiations
Bahour said that to get back to the negotiation table, the Palestinians must have a well-thought-out plan and there must be an honest broker for peace talks.
“There is a responsibility on the Palestinian side. We have just seen an announcement that there will be elections at all levels of Palestinian governance. The Palestinian side needs to get its act together. A properly represented leadership with a clear strategy forward which means trying to change the balance of power,” he said.
Bahour added that Washington is no longer the sole broker in the conflict.
“In order to enter any kind of negotiations – it is clear that the US lost any credibility to be the mediator of the negotiation process – so there is a need for some kind of multi-lateral approach based on international law. We are no longer interested … in going into a cigar-filled back room, trying to wheel the deal outside of the realm of international law. That was called the Oslo peace process; it failed utterly. Moving forward, we have to have a legally bound parameter that makes sense to be able to enter negotiations,” he said.
Odeh says the Palestinians are very realistic about what to expect from any US administration.
“This is not our first time dealing with a US administration, so we have learned the song and dance. We know what to expect and we know what the limitations are, especially from a mainstream administration. Having said that, I think the optimism is that there will be renewed dialogue with Washington; that’s a positive development,” she said.