President Biden is not reversing Trump’s decisions to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, to move the US Embassy there, or to recognize Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights (Secretary Blinken has affirmed that, in the absence of a reliable Syrian partner, Israeli control over the Golan is acceptable to the US, regardless of the area’s legal status). Nevertheless, and despite the fact that the Palestinian issue is not high on the president’s list of priorities, his policy on that issue differs from that of his predecessor.
Trump closed the American consulate in Jerusalem where US ties with the Palestinian Authority had been coordinated, stopped aid to UNRWA, closed the PLO mission in Washington, imposed sanctions on senior ICC personnel, and proposed a plan for a permanent agreement under which the whole of Jerusalem would remain under Israeli sovereignty, and Israel would annex 30% of Judea and Samaria (in exchange for the transfer of Israeli territory equivalent to 15% of the size of the area to the Palestinians). Biden has ignored Trump’s plan, renewed aid to the Palestinians and to UNRWA, removed the sanctions imposed on ICC personnel, is considering reopening the PLO office in Washington, and has announced his intention to reopen the consulate in Jerusalem.
The Biden administration has indicated that its attitude toward settlement activity, and in particular toward Israeli annexation intentions, would not be tolerant as in Trump’s day. The more deeply engaged the administration becomes with the human rights discourse in the international arena (the Democratic Party’s progressive wing constantly pushes in this direction), the less legitimacy there will be for a reality in which Israel continues, in the language of its critics, to “rule over another people lacking national and political rights.” Biden’s efforts to breathe life into the transatlantic alliance are also expected to strengthen Europe’s ability to influence the Palestinian issue in a way that would not be consistent with Israeli policy (though Europe itself is having trouble formulating a uniform policy, and in view of the rise of conservative right-wing elements on the continent, Israel has been afforded the backing of several European capitals).
According to assessments from within and outside the administration, Biden’s approach to the Palestinian issue will primarily be to avoid descent into violence, by insisting that the status quo be maintained and that no facts on the ground (i.e.: settlements) be created, which, in his view, would harm the chances for a future resolution based on the two-state principle. This limited approach stems both from the Biden administration’s priorities and its assessment that the parties are not ripe for final agreement negotiations that would end the conflict. Indeed, the Palestinian side is divided and its leadership is weak and lacks public support (Fatah), or it opposes the very recognition of Israel (Hamas). At the same time, there are deep ideological gaps within the current Israeli governing coalition; its survival requires its members to refrain from political steps toward a permanent arrangement with the Palestinians. The right-wing component of the government rejects the idea of an independent Palestinian state, while the center-left parties will reject any attempt to advance annexation or settlement expansion in territory beyond the blocs. However, while Prime Minister Naftali Bennett has so far, like his predecessor, refrained from engaging in talks with PA President Abu Mazen, other ministers in the new government are renewing contact with the Palestinian leader.
The challenge of containing the conflict with no political resolution on the horizon is exacerbated by the precarious economic situation in the territories, which worsened in past year due to a reduction in international aid and the COVID-19 pandemic. The situation of those residing in the Gaza Strip is particularly dire. The World Bank estimates that the cost of repairing the damage caused in Gaza by Operation Guardian of the Walls will be close to half a billion dollars. In the wake of the recent round of fighting, nearly two-thirds (62%) of Gaza residents have been declared food insecure and about half of the labor force is unemployed.
The 14-year split between Fatah (in the West Bank) and Hamas (in Gaza) is now compounded by a rift within Fatah, which deepened in advance of the elections that were planned for May 2021 (though not held). Abu Mazen, having failed to unite the various forces, canceled the elections in fear of a Hamas victory, which maintained a united list (he blamed Israel for having refused to permit elections in East Jerusalem). The Fatah rift, and the war of succession that is escalating due to perceptions that the aging Abu Mazen is nearing the end of his term of office, contribute to the strengthening Hamas in Judea and Samaria. This trend intensified following the round of fighting in May. The Palestinian public regards Hamas as the winner of the recent confrontation, as the defender of Jerusalem and the Muslim holy sites, and as one who deserves to lead the Palestinians (veteran pollster Dr. Khalil Shikaki calls this a “paradigm shift” in Palestinian public opinion).