If there has been an abiding theme to President Biden’s Israel policy so far, it has been that, for good or bad, the road to Washington does not run through Jerusalem. Israel’s centrality was a dominant component of the Trump administration’s foreign policy, whether it was President Trump’s own focus on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement and his visit to Israel on his first trip overseas, the touting of pro-Israel positions and policies as a critical component of Trump’s political appeal and that of future candidates such as Mike Pompeo and Nikki Haley, or the elevation of the Abraham Accords as the administration’s signature foreign policy accomplishment. Israel was central to the Obama administration as well but with a very different flavor, manifesting in an early call between President Obama and Prime Minister Olmert but also much effort expended on getting Prime Minister Netanyahu to agree to a temporary settlement freeze, the nearly year-long Kerry peace effort, and the high-level fighting over the JCPOA.
The Biden administration has taken a different tack, and one that appears to be setting Israeli officials on edge. While Tony Blinken, Lloyd Austin, and Jake Sullivan have spoken to their Israeli counterparts, there has been no call yet between Biden and Netanyahu. Biden’s first foreign policy address, given last week at the State Department, did not mention Israel at all. The administration has made it clear that deciding whether and how to reenter the JCPOA is its top Middle East priority, and that it has little interest in brokering Israeli-Palestinian peace. Blinken has confirmed that Biden has no desire to move the embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv, has been more ambiguous on whether the U.S. will formally rescind its recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights while stating that the U.S. believes that Israel must continue to control the territory for security purposes, and has been silent on settlements despite the Israeli government turning up the volume with recent moves in particularly sensitive areas. The overall effect has been to send the message that Israel is an important ally, but that the U.S. has bigger fish to fry.
This has led to an angst in Israeli political circles that must feel unprecedented for the current iteration of Israeli leaders given how unusual it has been for Israel to be on the backburner in Washington. Netanyahu has been peppered with questions about why Biden has not called yet and issued a statement on the Golan in response to Blinken that recalled confrontational missives from the Obama era but was ignored by the State Department. Recently replaced former Israeli Ambassador to the United Nations Danny Danon went so far as to tweet Netanyahu’s phone number to Biden on Wednesday morning in urging him to give the prime minister a call, though in this case it may be motivated as much by internal Likud jostling during an election season as it is by genuine concern for Israel’s standing with the new American president. For a country that has been accustomed to being the center of attention, being moved down the priority list may be even more jarring than fighting with an administration that is perceived as unfriendly or unsympathetic.
Netanyahu and the Israeli government will have to figure out how to successfully navigate these new waters, but there is another immediate question closer to home, which is how the U.S. itself should approach Israeli-Palestinian policy given this new environment where the issue is generally deprioritized. Hewing to the formulaic shibboleth of calling for the two sides to reengage through negotiations is not only unwise policy but out of sync with what is realistic in the current moment. Instead, what the Biden administration and Congress should do is hone in on the basics of our policy toward Israel, the Palestinians, and the conflict more widely, and how American objectives can be accomplished within a set of broad priorities.
The first is strengthening U.S.-Israel relations and ensuring Israel’s security, both of which have been longstanding hallmarks of our regional policy and that will guide an American approach irrespective of whether Israel is front and center in an administration’s foreign policy. Israeli security is intimately linked to ours, and Israel will be a critical regional security and intelligence partner no matter what else is going on. This means not only supporting Israel’s security directly in the context of a robust U.S.-Israel relationship, from security assistance to safeguarding Israel from one-sided actions in venues such as the International Criminal Court, but also supporting the security of other actors who contribute to regional stability. This includes support for Palestinian Authority Security Forces to ensure security coordination with Israel and the continued viability of the PA in the West Bank rather than risk a Hamas takeover, and support for and coordination with Jordan and Egypt and recognition of the important roles they play in East Jerusalem and Gaza respectively. Whatever disagreements the U.S. has with Israel over its policies with regard to the Palestinians, a strong U.S.-Israel relationship is always going to be an abiding U.S. interest.
Restoring the U.S. relationship with the Palestinians is another priority in the current environment. That the U.S. is not looking to restart negotiations between the two sides makes this a particularly apt opportunity to reset our approach, since it need not and should not be entirely a function of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, or nothing more than a corollary to our Israel policy. Resuming humanitarian assistance to the West Bank and Gaza and reestablishing our diplomatic presence to the Palestinians make sense in order to rebuild our ability to influence the Palestinian leadership and give us some positive leverage. The flip side of that coin is that pushing hard on the Palestinians to reform their martyr and prisoner payments system and to reform their basic governance is also important and cannot be waved away. Our relationship with the Palestinians needs to be rebalanced away from the extremes that have sometimes characterized it, where we overlook anything and everything in our desire to get them to negotiate with Israel or we try to bludgeon them into submission.
Ignoring the new formalized regional alignment would be foolhardy, not only because it represents an opportunity to build on a genuine Trump administration success but because supporting Israel’s acceptance in the Middle East has always been an American principle. The Abraham Accords may not be as durable as its crafters intended, but that only provides a reason for the U.S. to encourage further normalization agreements that can withstand pressure and last on their own merits. The U.S. should also follow the path set by the United Arab Emirates in encouraging leveraging the promise of normalization for positive change on the ground; while Abu Dhabi used diplomatic relations as the hook for suspending unilateral West Bank annexation, future agreements can easily take into account measures that will not only benefit Palestinian quality of life but build facts on the ground that encourage momentum toward two states.
This last point is critical, since even without a focus on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, U.S. policy should be aimed at fostering a more conducive environment for talks on a two-state outcome to one day succeed. Without actual negotiations on the agenda, this means recalibrating expectations on both the Israeli and Palestinian sides about what the U.S. is likely to prioritize and support, making sure both sides refrain from steps—West Bank annexation or unilateral declarations of statehood, for instance—that will send things spiraling out of control, and doing everything possible to arrest deterioration on the ground that erodes freedom, security, and prosperity for both sides rather than enhances it. Biden is neither Trump nor Obama, and that means that it is equally unlikely for there to be a drumbeat of public statements over every announcement of new settlement planning and construction as it is for there to be a greenlight behind the scenes for the Israeli government to do whatever it pleases. It is equally unrealistic to expect the U.S. to withhold all assistance from Palestinians because it wants to abolish the notion of Palestinian refugeehood as it is to expect the U.S. to turn a blind eye to Palestinian attempts to use international law and international institutions to create a sanctions regime on Israel. Not focusing on resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict today does not mean ignoring it entirely or trying only to mitigate the daily damage; it means focusing on a smaller set of short and medium term goals that are critical to eventually getting to the long term one.
There will undoubtedly be upsides and downsides for Israel and for the Palestinians to not be at the center of things. Whether or not either side likes it, that is the reality of the situation for the foreseeable future in a Biden White House, and U.S. policy should adapt accordingly to focus on what is important in the current moment.