The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security

To acquire greater freedom of action in dealing with Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, Israel needs to minimize tensions with the US on the Palestinian front.

Israel can expect a Biden-Harris administration to be friendly. However, on two key issues tensions are likely to arise: Iran and the Palestinians. To acquire greater freedom of action in dealing with Iran’s quest for nuclear weapons, Israel needs to minimize tensions with the US on the Palestinian front.

Given recent regional changes, the presidential transition period augurs well for a new understanding between Jerusalem and Washington on the Palestinian question. The time to act is now, as policies are being shaped and appointments to key positions are being determined.

The Palestinian strategy of recent years has patently failed. The Palestinian Authority sought an imposed solution; Israeli withdrawals forced upon Israel by the international community. The architect of this strategy, Saeb Erekat, believed that Israel can be isolated and delegitimized like the apartheid regime in South Africa, and brought to its knees like Serbia in Kosovo.

In accordance with this strategy, the Palestinians did not respond to President Obama’s peace proposals in 2014, which among other aspects called for mutual recognition between the Jewish-Zionist national project and Palestinian nationalism. The Palestinians also rejected consideration of Israel’s legitimate security needs. Thus, Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts led to naught. This rejectionist Palestinian approach continued throughout the Trump years too.

Despite Palestinian efforts to isolate in international fora and to impose BDS penalties on it, Israel has been successful in establishing and developing good relations with many countries. A powerhouse of innovation, Israel has become an address for good business for many members of the international community. In fact, countries of the world no longer have to worry about the cost of such business (in terms of relations with Arab nations) since Israel established full diplomatic ties with the UAE and Bahrain.

Most of the world has applauded the Abraham Accords, reflecting Israel’s improved international status. So has Egypt, a key player in the region. In fact, the Arab League’s refusal to take up a Palestinian complaint against Gulf state “normalization” of ties with Israel, essentially seals the failure of Palestinian strategy.

But Palestinian leadership remains reluctant to let go of their failed strategy. Instead, the PA looks towards the changing of the guard in Washington for rescue.

This too is mistaken. President-elect Joe Biden has welcomed the growing acceptance of Israel in the region, and signaled that some aspects of his predecessor’s Mideast policy (such as the move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, and recognition of Israel’s sovereignty on the Golan Heights) will not be rescinded. Nor can Biden easily undue the restrictions on US aid to the Palestinians that flow from the Taylor Force Act.

Regarding the substance of future negotiations (what is known as “Terms of Reference”), it is unlikely that a Biden administration would back maximalist (and non-implementable) Palestinian demands, such as establishment of a Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with Jerusalem (and the Temple Mount) as its capital, and a softened “right of return” for Palestinian refugees their descendants to Israel.

Moreover, the Palestinians cannot expect their concerns to top Biden’s foreign policy agenda. He is unlikely to emulate Obama’s obsessive interest in the Palestinians as the key to better relations with the Muslim world. In fact, the formula for peacemaking between Israelis and Palestinians used by consecutive American administrations has consistently failed. Moreover, Biden is much more experienced than Obama in foreign affairs; and consequently, he must realize that currently the Israeli-Palestinian arena offers little hope for dramatic conflict resolution.

Of course, the fallback position is conflict management, which the Israeli government essentially has been practicing for recent years. An improved status-quo – albeit with a “political horizon” – was the core of the “Peace to Prosperity Plan” issued by the Trump administration in January 2020. It would be wise for Israel to repackage now the beneficial aspects of this plan and present them to the US as Israel’s “peace initiative.”      

The transition period is the best time to influence the positions of the Biden presidency on the Palestinian issue. Hopefully, the pragmatic side of Biden will overcome the naivete of some of his supporters. International circumstances are ripe for convincing the incoming administration to adopt a realistic approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which borrows on the positive elements of Trump’s plan without using Trump’s name.

This requires an Israeli peace initiative soon. This initiative can (and should) preserve the basic strategic gains contained in outgoing administration’s approach. Speaking the language that Democrats in the US prefer to hear, the point can be made that the real options for progress towards peace lie with abandonment of the fantasy of coercion, and with resuming negotiations towards a compromise between the two national movements. In parallel, the point can be made that even if little happens “top-down,”, adopting “bottom-up” economic packages conducive to Palestinian welfare would be useful.

This initiative should reiterate the territorial principles put forward by Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin (who is a hero of peace for many Americans, especially Democrats) in his last speech to the Knesset in October 1995. Thus an Israeli peace plan should give prominence to security arrangements; to the strategic importance of the Jordan Valley; to the unity of Jerusalem as a living city; to rejection of the so-called Palestinian “right of return” and to recognition that there are two refugee problems, not one; and to an end to PA incitement, BDS efforts, and support for terror and terrorists.

The Israeli initiative also should offer the Palestinians economic incentives as discussed at the Manama “workshop” in 2019, primarily supported by Israel’s new Gulf partners. Major infrastructure projects can be undertaken without waiting for an agreement. For example, “transportation contiguity” should be created for the future Palestinian state, i.e., travel routes connecting Palestinian areas without having to go through Israeli checkpoints, something that has far-reaching implications for daily life and reduction of friction between Palestinians and the IDF. Special port arrangements also may help revive growth for Palestinians and Israelis alike. This would fit in with the efforts, which lie ahead, for post-pandemic economic revival.

It is important to reinforce the principle, the American principle, against imposed solutions. Israel can mobilize support in Washington from her new and old Arab peace partners in this regard. Greece, a Mediterranean ally, also has an active lobby. Despite the likely objections from a radical minority, it is safe to assume that this injunction against coercion can be legislated, or at least declared in a bipartisan “Sense of Congress” resolution. This might inject a much-needed sense of reality into the emerging Palestinian discourse over the wisdom (or rather, folly) of their heated attacks on the Gulf countries and their outright vulgar rejection of the American 2020 peace plan.

An Israeli initiative is needed to shape policy in the transition period; to mobilize pro-Israeli forces within the Democratic Party, within the administration, and within Congress; to project moderation and seriousness in seeking peace; and to open up the options for interim measures and economic growth. Generating a constructive image would also be useful in cementing a regional alliance aimed at meeting the Iranian challenge.

Published in The Jerusalem Post 24.11.2020

JISS Policy Papers are published through the generosity of the Greg Rosshandler Family.