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What Biden should do about Israel and Palestine

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister

Then-Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give joint statements in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem in March 2016. One of the most urgent foreign policy tasks facing Biden is repairing the severe damage President Trump has inflicted on U.S. policy towards Israel. Credit: EPA/DEBBIE HILL / POOL

One of the most urgent foreign policy tasks facing Joe Biden is repairing the severe damage President Donald Trump has inflicted on U.S. policy towards Israel, and especially the Palestinians. Despite the growing impression, in the salons of Washington as much as the palaces of the Middle East, that the Palestinian issue has become moot, that conflict has demonstrated a persistent ability to suddenly reignite. Resolving it remains crucial to security and stability in the Middle East.

Since the end of the Cold War, there had been a bipartisan American consensus in favor of peace based on a negotiated two-state solution. Trump and several key aides, especially his son-in-law Jared Kushner, spent the past four years trying to destroy that consensus by supporting Israeli annexation of occupied territory in the West Bank, effectively eliminating the prospects for a meaningful Palestinian state.

Biden needs to urgently rebuild robust support for a negotiated peace as the centerpiece of a bipartisan policy. That means not merely ignoring but explicitly repudiating Trump's proposal of last January that, in effect, invites Israel to annex large chunks of the West Bank.

Biden can draw on the normalization process between Israel and the UAE and Bahrain, which are predicated on Israel shelving annexation plans, at least through the end of 2024. That buys time to get American policy back in line with international law, and U.S. and Israeli treaty obligations, most notably the 1993 Declaration of Principles they signed with the Palestinians.

Setting the stage for eventual renewed negotiations will require immediate clarity that the U.S. will not support efforts by Israel to use the Trump annexation proposal, as opposed to the agreed-upon 1993 framework, as the starting point.

Such steps should be balanced by encouragement for more Arab countries to engage diplomatically with Israel, while underscoring that annexation and normalization do not mix.

Biden should start that process by immediately rescinding outgoing Secretary of State Mike Pompeo's outrageous new order that products made in West Bank settlements be labeled "made in Israel." It represents a complete betrayal of the 1993 accords that designate borders and settlements as final-status issues to be negotiated and not prejudiced by unilateral actions like annexation.

Biden needs to move quickly to fix things at a practical level too. He should restore U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, especially if, as it says it will, the PA revises payments to the families of prisoners to address concerns that it could be interpreted as rewarding violence.

Given that the PA has restored pre-existing relations with Israel, including security cooperation, at Biden's urging, he should restore American diplomatic relations with the Palestinians.

The Palestinian Liberation Organization's mission in Washington, the de-facto Palestinian embassy, should be welcomed back. And the U.S. consulate, the de-facto American embassy to the Palestinians, should be extracted from the main embassy now in West Jerusalem, and reopened in occupied East Jerusalem where it can more effectively serve its mission of outreach to Palestinians.

All measures, large and small, should be focused on restoring a constructive American role that can work towards an eventual agreement that allows both peoples their self-determination and first-class citizenship.

Biden needs to make clear that the U.S. is categorically opposed to unilateral annexation and to settlement activity, especially when it alters the strategic equation. Israel needs to face consequences for making the problem significantly more difficult to resolve.

A return to a traditional, constructive stance that emphasizes multilateralism, diplomacy and a rules-based order fits the mainstream of bipartisan U.S. foreign policy.

If their goal, as they insist, is to shift U.S. policy in the Middle East to a balancing role based on a robust diplomacy, Biden's team can't afford to leave Israel and the Palestinians, where Trump has left them.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has a nasty habit of dramatically reasserting its global significance just when it seems to be a historical footnote. Ignoring it would be a huge mistake.

Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States Institute in Washington. This piece was written for Bloomberg.

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