President-elect Joe Biden is going to be inaugurated on January 20, irrespective of how much chaos and uncertainty marks the coming weeks, and governments around the world are scrambling to adjust to what will undoubtedly be a reset for American foreign policy. Israelis and Palestinians are no different, and Jerusalem and Ramallah are strategizing as to how they can start things off with the Biden administration in a positive way.
It is no secret that the Israeli government spent the past four years exulting over its policy victories under the Trump presidency. Now that a new sheriff is coming to town, there will be twin impulses in Israel that result from a sense of urgency over the impending last days of the Trump administration. One impulse will be to batten down the hatches in anticipation of a massive policy shift and a return to public battles over Israeli policy in the West Bank. A second impulse that follows from the first will be to lock in gains and expand upon them before President Trump leaves office.
Both of these will be a mistake should Israel act on them. For starters, while Biden differs very publicly from Trump on a number of key issues in the Israeli-Palestinian sphere, he has publicly supported some of the Trump-era initiatives that have made Israel the happiest, most saliently recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and the relocation of the embassy to reflect that and the normalization deals between Israel and Arab states. On issues where he clearly departs from Trump, with West Bank annexation topping the list, he reflects nearly universal and mainstream Democratic policy. Biden is a known quantity to Israel and to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and there are unlikely to be any surprises on the horizon. Biden and his foreign policy advisers have spoken about Israel as a critical ally and their desire to keep disagreements largely private, and are as committed to Israel’s security as anyone on either side of the aisle. The best way to precipitate a public blow-up is for the Israeli government to act as if they are anticipating a public blow-up.
This does not mean that disagreements will not exist, because they will. Trump policy regarding the West Bank, from embrace of annexation to an assumption that all settlements are not only de facto legal but are to be encouraged, is going to be set aside. Biden policy toward the Palestinians is going to be where the real break with the Trump administration will be most easily seen, and not only will that lead to philosophical disagreements between the U.S. and Israel but it may lead to tangible ones as well, since moves like reopening the Consulate-General in Jerusalem will require Israeli consent.
But the likely focus of a Biden administration in the Middle East at the outset is not going to be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It is going to be on another issue in which Israel has a stake, which is figuring out if and how the U.S. reenters the JCPOA or negotiates a new deal with Iran to address its nuclear program. The scars from the last fight over the Iran deal are still visible, and Biden is not going to want a pitched battle with Israel or other regional allies who opposed the JCPOA and will be extremely wary of a new effort to engage with Iran. This means that Biden is not going to want to open up multiple fronts with Israel that distract from the main priority, which in turn points to trying to tamp down public disagreements on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
This is why, for Israel, trying to extract as much as possible from the Trump administration on its way out would be a mistake. It is one thing if there is disagreement between Biden and Netanyahu on general Israeli settlement activity. It is quite another if on his first day in office, Biden is facing West Bank annexation that has already been enacted, or Israeli construction in the most sensitive possible areas such as Givat HaMatos, or a rash of demolitions of entire West Bank villages. These are all things that the Trump administration has either encouraged or to which it has turned a blind eye, and they are things that a Biden administration will be hard pressed to ignore. Not only would it strain the relationship with a new president, it would make it less likely for Israel to be included in a more robust way in any deliberation process surrounding a reconstructed Iran deal. The Israeli government has no need to go into anything resembling crisis mode with a Biden administration, but that also means not laying the groundwork for a crisis.
The Palestinians have a mirror image dynamic. Whereas Israelis may be tempted to think without cause that there are rough seas ahead, Palestinians may be tempted to think that they have nothing but smooth sailing. The Biden campaign endorsed restoring diplomatic relations with the Palestinians and resuming funding to the West Bank and Gaza, which will include humanitarian assistance and USAID infrastructure projects and likely also some level of American funding for UNRWA. The Trump administration moved the pendulum as far as it could possibly go in one direction with the Palestinians and held it there, and the logical assumption is that with a new Democratic president, it is now due to swing back.
While there is little question that the Palestinians will benefit in the immediate term from a Biden presidency, the pendulum is not going to swing as far in their direction as it did for Israel under Trump. The Trump administration has been an extreme outlier in terms of its policies, and extreme and outlier are not words that make sense when discussing Biden. The Biden administration is going to look to restore a sense of balance, and that means that the Palestinians will also have to get their house in order in a way that they were able to elide while facing the Trump administration’s all-out assault.
The U.S., the European Union, and the United Nations have all been frustrated with downgraded Palestinian security coordination with Israel. They have all implored the Palestinian Authority to accept the tax revenues that Israel collects on its behalf and that the PA has refused to accept due to the threat of annexation even though that immediate threat seems to have dissipated. They have all urged the Palestinian leadership to address the martyr and prisoner payments system, with its escalating payments for severity of the crime and time in Israeli prison and which has led to sanctions such as the Taylor Force Act and the Knesset law offsetting tax transfers by the amount of the martyr and prisoner payments. These are all going to be bones of contention with the Biden administration irrespective of Biden’s desire to roll back some of the more punitive measures taken by Trump.
The best thing the Palestinians can do for themselves is to make it easier for the Biden administration to help them by addressing some of these concerns. It is incongruous to bemoan the cuts to funding and UNRWA’s dire financial situation while continuing to reject clearance revenues from Israel, a policy that President Abbas should reverse before Biden takes office. It is also critical for the Palestinians to take the prisoner payments concern more seriously given how large it looms in Congress, in Israel, and in the American Jewish community. If the Palestinians start off a Biden presidency with a list of requests without being prepared to give something in return, it will make it politically more difficult to restore some balance to U.S. policy and will erode any goodwill that exists.
A Biden presidency is inevitably going to unfold differently in many ways than either Israelis or Palestinians expect as events drive policy positions and policy responses. The Israeli and Palestinian governments can get off to a positive start by assessing what the new administration’s priorities are likely to be and what steps they should avoid in order not to thwart those priorities.