Biden is taking modest but necessary steps to revive US-Palestine ties

Washington's cautious approach towards reviving peace diplomacy in the region reflect its limited options

epa09113864 People attend the 'Land Day' celebration for Palestine, organized by Islamist political party Ennahda in Tunis, Tunisia, 03 April 2021. Land Day is marked on 30 March by Arabs and Palestinians, marking the events of 30 March 1976 in Israel, when Palestinians declared a general strike and held large demonstrations against land expropriation by Israeli authorities in the Galilee. This day has been marked as the National Land Day, where Israel killed six Palestinians and injured and detained many others.  EPA/MOHAMED MESSARA
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The administration of Joe Biden is pursuing several ambitious innovations alongside considerable continuity with previous US government policies. In between the two, it is also working to reverse major deviations from long-standing American policies, including on relations with the Palestinians, by the disruptive administration of Donald Trump.

With last week's announcement of the first major tranche of US aid for Palestinians since it was effectively zeroed out by Mr Trump in 2019, Mr Biden is taking the first major step towards rebuilding these all-but-obliterated ties.

The approach is notably modest.

Unlike various periods during the administrations of all his immediate predecessors – George HW Bush, Bill Clinton, George W Bush, Barack Obama and even Mr Trump – Mr Biden has avoided making Palestinian-Israeli negotiations a priority. Efforts to revive negotiations with Iran and end the war in Yemen have special Biden envoys. There isn't one for the Palestinian-Israeli process.

In an effort to pressure the Palestinians, Mr Trump effectively eradicated all official US ties to them.

The strikingly modest efforts to reconstruct them reflect decades of American failure to resolve the conflict or even prevent it from deteriorating, and the realistic recognition that there is little for Washington to work with on the ground and with leaderships on both sides, especially in Israel.

The Biden administration has resumed traditional US support for a two-state solution, effectively abandoned by Mr Trump. But it doesn't harbour any illusions that this can be accomplished, or even seriously advanced, in the near term. It correctly views fixing Washington's relations with the Palestinians as an essential early step to reviving broader peace diplomacy.

The new aid totals approximately $270 million, including $75m for economic development, $150m for the UN agency that cares for Palestinian refugees throughout the region, UNRWA, and additional sums for Covid-19 assistance.

(FILES) In this file photo US ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, and President of the Security Council speaks during a press conference for the Security Council programme of work in March at the UN Headquarters in New York on March 1, 2021. The moment has come for "inclusive, representative" government in Sudan, the US ambassador to the UN said on March 9, 2021, calling for "comprehensive and sustainable peace" in the African nation. Six months after the Juba peace agreement between the civilian-led transitional government and rebel groups was signed, "the Sudanese people have not seen the commitment and engagement by signatory parties necessary for progress," Linda Thomas-Greenfield said during a United Nations Security Council videoconference.   / AFP / TIMOTHY A. CLARY
The US ambassador to the UN, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, says the $15 million in aid will go to Palestinians facing food insecurity and other problems due to the Covid-19 pandemic. AFP 

Perhaps most suggestive is $40m being unfrozen from fiscal year 2016 for security assistance. Spending that will involve reopening the office of the US security co-ordinator in the West Bank that, in his drive to eliminate all US-Palestinian diplomatic relations, Mr Trump predictably shuttered.

No money will be directly given to the Palestinian Authority because of the “Taylor Force Act” signed by Mr Trump in 2018. It prohibits direct US funding for the PA because of financial support for the families of all Palestinians imprisoned by Israel, including those accused of violence, which is alleged to encourage and reward terrorism.

Palestinians are eventually going to have to reform this system to satisfy the US Congress, which will also have to change the legislation. But that's not in the administration's priorities list since the Act allows security assistance and indirect funding for Palestinians.

Last week, a senior State Department official told me that the administration views renewed aid as “an important step in re-establishing relations with the Palestinian people", and said a range of other economic and diplomatic measures is being prepared.

The aid package effectively restores US support to the Palestinians to levels at the end of the Obama era. Other damage by the Trump administration will be harder to reverse. Reopening the Palestine Liberation Organisation mission in Washington, the de facto Palestinian embassy, unceremoniously padlocked by Mr Trump, was a Biden campaign pledge. But significant groundwork will be required to ensure that wouldn't expose the PLO to significant legal liabilities, among other complications.

Eventually, however, a full restoration of US-Palestinian diplomatic relations will be essential for both sides.

Reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem, a de facto embassy to the Palestinians, also unsurprisingly bolted by Mr Trump, is more straightforward and appears under active consideration. Potential Israeli objections are the only practical obstacle.

So, it's likely that, assuming the process moves forward, the de facto US embassy to the Palestinians will be reopened much more quickly and easily than the de facto Palestinian embassy in Washington.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Office is seen in Washington, DC, on November 21, 2017.
Palestinian officials announced November21, 2017 they had suspended meetings with the US following a quarrel with President Donald Trump's administration over the future of their representative office in Washington. The announcement came on the same day the leading Palestinian political factions began talks in Cairo aimed at pushing ahead with reconciliation efforts.
Reopening the Palestine Liberation Organisation office in Washington won't be easy. AFP

However, the considerable current objections and political obstacles, particularly in Congress, to a broad restoration of US-Palestinian ties arose in the context of the mistrust and anger that Mr Trump's pro-annexation policies, and outraged Palestinian reactions, engendered.

Gradual but steady improvement in ties should erode, and eventually eliminate, most of those obstacles, particularly if the PA addresses concerns regarding payments to prisoners’ families.

Israel has criticised renewed US funding for UNRWA, which, it claims, somehow perpetuates the refugee problem.

But the senior US official told me that, to the contrary, "the administration sees this as a renewed commitment to the US relationship with the Palestinian people, which is why the funding is not only aimed towards the West Bank and Gaza but for UNRWA, an important institution that provides services to the Palestinian people writ large".

The official said a bumper-sticker summary of the Biden approach would hold that “advancing freedom, prosperity and security for both Israelis and Palestinians, in the immediate term and in tangible ways, is important in its own right and can help lead towards a two-state solution".

Our cartoonist's take on how US President Joe Biden is resetting the US-Palestine relationship
Our cartoonist's take on how US President Joe Biden is resetting the US-Palestine relationship
In life generally, and especially in politics and diplomacy, things either get worse, stay unchanged, or get better

Yet the Biden administration's commitment to a slow but steady return to productive US engagement on a two-state, or any reasonable and viable, solution faces another serious challenge: strategic Israeli settlement expansions.

The Israeli government last week said an exceptionally sensitive Jerusalem settlement project in Jabal Abu Ghneim (which Israel calls Har Homa), long blocked by Washington, would go forward with 540 new housing units. Seeking to complete the encirclement of occupied East Jerusalem, Israeli governments have been attempting to build there since the 1980s. Any effective slow but steady revival of a two-state US policy is going to have to also involve restraining Israel in such areas, as many previous administrations have.

Mr Biden is doing the right thing by rebuilding relations with the Palestinians. And he is wise to do so carefully and purposively. Many Palestinians and their friends will understandably be dissatisfied. But in life generally, and especially in politics and diplomacy, things either get worse, stay unchanged, or get better.

For the first time in years, US policy towards the Palestinians just got noticeably better. Even if its scope is modest, that's the very definition of good news.

Hussein Ibish is a senior resident scholar at the Arab Gulf States ­Institute and a US affairs columnist for The National