This past week saw acute examples of the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority dealing with the brand new environment of the post-Trump era. While Joe Biden’s victory in the presidential election means that both sides have to recalibrate to take into account anticipated changes in U.S. policy, a new American president does not fundamentally alter the domestic politics on the ground. If early signs are an indication, Israel is probing to find out whether business as usual at home will negatively impact its relationship with Washington, while the Palestinians are probing to find out whether changing the way they do business at home will lead to positive change in their relationship with Washington.
On Sunday, the Israeli government published the tender terms for 1,257 new housing units to be built in Givat Hamatos, which is effectively the last piece of undeveloped land between Bethlehem and East Jerusalem. Givat Hamatos sits east of Gilo and Beit Safafa and northwest of Har Homa, and what makes it such a critical piece of real estate is that once it has been developed, it will complete the ring of Jewish neighborhoods in southern and eastern Jerusalem that divide Bethlehem from its northern neighbor. This is both a problem for preserving access to Jerusalem for Bethlehem residents and for maintaining the possibility of a future Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem that can incorporate Palestinian neighborhoods, as constructing Givat Hamatos would also turn Beit Safafa into an enclave surrounded by Jewish neighborhoods on all sides.
The tenders for Givat Hamatos were published last February but the tender booklet containing the terms was postponed three times until being released this week, and it is possible that the overall process can be delayed yet again or even cancelled. Until tenders are actually awarded after the bidding process, any development announcement remains nothing but an announcement. If the current process unfolds according to the published timeline, however, developers can submit bids until January 25, at which point the Land Authority can announce the winners and sign contracts. The timing of this process cannot be divorced from the U.S. calendar, since it lets the Israeli government move closer to building in one of the two areas (the other being E-1) that has historically caused the most friction with previous administrations while President Trump is still in charge, while at the same time laying the groundwork for a clash with Biden during his first week as president.
If Prime Minister Netanyahu were concerned only with a new American administration, advancing Givat Hamatos would be an odd move to make under the current circumstances. But U.S. politics are certainly not the only consideration at play. Netanyahu and Benny Gantz remain locked in a game of chicken over who will be the first to formally end their putative partnership and trigger new elections, and Netanyahu is also keeping a watchful eye on Naftali Bennett and Yamina’s rising poll numbers. The configuration of Israeli politics for years has made swings to the right the obvious spot to go while chasing votes, both in terms of absolute gains and relative gains within the right-wing constellation, so news on Givat Hamatos is one of the potential early signals that elections are coming.
Givat Hamatos is also a way to float a trial balloon, albeit a risky one, in order to test Biden’s intentions while in office. The widespread assumption, which I share, is that Biden is not interested in repeated public confrontations with the Israeli government over settlement construction, and Netanyahu is also not going to want to inaugurate his relationship with Biden as president by loudly crossing a longstanding pre-Trump American red line. It is possible that the intention here is to get Givat Hamatos in under the wire in order to present it as a fait accompli by establishing facts on the ground that cannot be reversed. It is also possible that Netanyahu is trying to gauge what the reaction to such moves will be in the future during a period where there are no consequences to actually suffer, and that what happens next will be determined according to Biden’s response. A third possibility is that Netanyahu is counting on the Biden team to have a deeper understanding of Israeli politics and allow him to get the political benefit now of advancing Givat Hamatos while then using the variety of delay tactics that exist to halt it once Biden is in office, which will be easier to pull off without a public spat. Whichever one of these possibilities is the correct one, Netanyahu is navigating the various cross currents by prioritizing his domestic concerns.
On the Palestinian side of things, the calculus is looking different. On Tuesday, the Palestinian Authority announced that it was resuming security and civilian ties with Israel after having suspended them in May in response to Israel’s stated intention to pursue unilateral West Bank annexation, and that it was doing so following a written commitment from Israel to abide by previous agreements. Not only does this mean a resumption of security coordination between the IDF and the Palestinian Authority Security Forces, which has been a priority for Israel, but it means that the PA will accept the transfer of hundreds of millions of dollars in tax revenues that Israel collects on its behalf. That money, which is over $100 million per month, accounts for roughly 60% of the PA’s budget, and its rejection has caused the PA’s stability to teeter as it cut salaries across the board. It had also become a point of contention with outside donors, leading the European Union to press the PA to accept the clearance revenues from Israel. In addition, there were reports yesterday that the PA is reconsidering its longstanding system of making escalating payments to prisoners and families of Palestinians killed during attacks on Israelis based on the severity of the attack, and instead converting the system to a wider social welfare program based on need.
As with the Givat Hamatos announcement, these developments cannot be divorced from the particular timing. Despite the fact that the Abraham Accords effectively took annexation off the table in the near term, President Abbas’s negative reaction to the normalization deal made it hard for him to use it as a way to begin interacting with Israel again. Abbas was also unlikely to do anything that would give Trump a win, no matter how self-defeating the behavior continued to be. Biden’s election gave him the ladder he needed to climb down from the tree into which he had gotten himself stuck. It is also the case that the Palestinians had received messages from people close to the Biden camp impressing upon them the importance of reversing their posture if they hoped to have a true reset once Trump left office. If prisoner payment reform actually comes to fruition, it will be the most obvious sign that Biden’s election is spurring change, even before he has a chance to implement new policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
Whereas what the Palestinians should be doing in order to take advantage of a new administration is obvious, the domestic politics makes it complicated. The Abraham Accords remain enormously unpopular with Palestinians, as does resuming ties with Israel; while 50% of Palestinians were in favor of restoring civil ties with Israel, nearly two thirds opposed restoring security coordination. Resuming both at the same time will help the PA stabilize itself fiscally and improve its relations with external actors, but it will not make the PA any more popular at home. Considering Abbas’s 31% approval rating and the widening gap between him and Ismail Haniyeh in a hypothetical presidential matchup, Abbas’s decision here certainly does not seem to be about shoring up his own popularity. While this demonstrates the importance the PA places on a reset with the U.S. and the desperate financial situation in which it placed itself, it is also a demonstration of the consequences of democratic politics versus non-democratic politics. Netanyahu is answerable to a voting public while Abbas is not, and it means that domestic political considerations in Israel will often trump other ones whereas the set of concerns in Ramallah is different.
It is also worth noting just how far apart the U.S. and Israel have grown during the Trump era on Palestinian issues despite the perception of the two governments marching in lockstep under Trump and Netanyahu. While the quest among Trump officials seems to perpetually be how to undermine the PA in new ways, the Israeli government is constantly worried about PA collapse. The Trump administration looks to cut off all funding to any entity operating on behalf of the Palestinians in the West Bank, while the Israeli government begs the PA to accept its tax revenues, going so far as trying to unilaterally deposit them in PA accounts. There are reasons why the Netanyahu government is sad to see Trump departing office in two months, but his policy of war on the PA is not one of them.
Whether this shift in PA policies will mean a wholesale change in its relationship with the U.S. remains to be seen. At the least, it reflects an understanding that Biden presents the possibility of a positive reset, and that trying to capitalize on that early may be worth a raft of domestic political complications.