The Biden administration on Tuesday put forth its first detailed comments on its Israeli-Palestinian policy through a speech to the United Nations Security Council by Acting Envoy Richard Mills. The content of the remarks was not surprising to anyone who followed President Biden’s positions during the campaign or watched Tony Blinken’s State Department confirmation hearing. But there are a few elements that clearly departed from Trump administration policies that are noteworthy to highlight even if they were expected, as they point to a developing roadmap for what Biden may seek to accomplish on the Israeli-Palestinian front.
The first and most important element to note – and one that tracks with the core recommendation of the Center for a New American Security report released last month by Ilan Goldenberg, Tamara Cofman Wittes, and me – is that the Biden administration is very clearly putting the emphasis of its efforts on something other than negotiations. The focus on convening Israelis and Palestinians for final status peace talks has been an enduring feature of U.S. policy across administrations for decades, and it has not worked. It has been clear to many analysts for a long time that final status talks are currently futile given where the parties are, both in terms of their positions on issues and their complete lack of trust in each other, but the allure of trying for the ultimate deal has always been too great for presidents to ignore. The downside to this approach has not only been failure to achieve its aims, but allowing the situation on the ground to deteriorate as the focus on negotiations crowds out everything else.
Mills nodded to these points yesterday in an unmistakable way. As he put it, “The respective leaderships are far apart on final-status issues, Israeli and Palestinian politics are fraught, and trust between the two sides is at a nadir. However, these realities do not relieve Member States of the responsibility of trying to preserve the viability of a two-state solution. Nor should they distract from the imperative of improving conditions on the ground, particularly the humanitarian crisis in Gaza.” Nowhere in Mills’s comments did he say that the U.S. seeks to conduct or oversee talks between the two sides, nor did he call for the parties to return to the negotiating table. He instead emphasized trying to shape a better situation for both sides with an end goal of preserving the possibility of a two-state outcome. While this may strike many as an obvious and commonsense approach, it marks a significant shift from the approach taken by the Trump, Obama, Bush, and Clinton administrations. It also does away with standard talking points on the conflict that everyone knows by heart as they have been at the center of presidential and Congressional statements for years. In addition, it has been reported that Biden is not establishing a special envoy’s office for Israeli-Palestinian talks, which lends credence to the idea that the administration’s commitment to this approach goes beyond the absence of empty words.
Another important element in Mills’s outlining of the Biden administration’s approach relates to the American relationship with the Palestinians. The underlying goal behind a series of moves that Mills laid out was restoring credible U.S. engagement. Mills had already directly identified incitement and prisoner payments as issues that had to be addressed, but after speaking about the need to reengage, he mentioned resuming humanitarian assistance and reopening diplomatic missions that had been closed. While he did not identify them specifically, Mills was referencing the U.S. Consulate-General in Jerusalem and the PLO mission in Washington. The latter is much harder to reopen for a variety of reasons involving limits placed on Palestinian diplomatic activity through Congressional legislation, but reestablishing an independent American diplomatic presence to the Palestinians on the ground is an imperative.
In closing the Consulate-General and folding it into the U.S. Embassy to Israel through the creation of a Palestinian Affairs Unit, the U.S. made two mistakes that reopening the Consulate-General will rectify. From a tactical standpoint, it further decreased our contacts with and insight into the Palestinians, removing any remaining influence and leverage we had following the Trump administration’s various aid cutoffs. No matter how intransigent the previous administration viewed the Palestinian leadership to be, making it more difficult for ordinary Palestinians to engage with the U.S. was counterproductive. For those who don’t understand why Palestinians would be any more reticent to deal with the U.S. through the embassy, reflect upon the message it sends to Palestinians – who are proud guardians of their own national aspirations – when the U.S. tells them that the only way we value their engagement is insofar as it runs through Israel. After all, when the Consulate-General – which was designated specifically to engage with Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza, and East Jerusalem – was shuttered, neither the embassy nor the ambassador had their titles or job descriptions enlarged to include either the Palestinians or Palestinian-controlled territory. Making the Palestinians operate through our mission to Israel sends a message about how we view them, and whether we see any value in our ties to the Palestinians beyond the narrow frame of their own engagement with Israel or the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The second mistake was a conceptual one. In having no separate diplomatic mission to the Palestinians, the message we communicate to the world is that our preferred outcome to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a single state. It treats Palestinians not only as having to go through Israel in order to engage with us, but as literal subsidiaries of Israel, albeit ones who are not citizens and do not have independent or equal rights. The very first sentence Mills uttered about the Biden administration’s approach was, “Under the new administration, the policy of the United States will be to support a mutually agreed two-state solution, one in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state.” That policy is incompatible with keeping the Consulate-General closed. If the U.S. views the Palestinians as separate from Israel, and as a people who deserve to have their own independent state, maintaining the embassy’s Palestinian Affairs Unit sends a contradictory message in support of a single territorial unit between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River.
Reopening the Consulate-General is not as simple as it may seem, as Shira Efron and Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha have pointed out. But it is a critical step nonetheless, and one that on its own demonstrates the way in which Biden is seeking to reset U.S. policy. Longstanding elements of American policy will remain, such as unwavering support for Israel’s security and clear and unambiguous messages about its value as a U.S. partner. But the administration’s first foray into these waters makes it clear that they are looking to chart their own course, and one that will be a departure from what has come before.