It’s a mistake to believe that Biden will be a friend of Palestine
Palestinians are eager to turn a new page after four years of the Trump administration in Washington, which undermined the whole Palestinian cause. Trump let Israel's right-wing government do as it pleased, and gave its illegal activities a veneer of acceptability.
Joe Biden’s election win was thus welcomed, not least by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who saw it as a step towards advancing a peaceful solution for Palestine-Israel. However, Dr Yara Hawari, senior analyst at the Palestinian Policy Network, Al-Shabaka, pointed out that Trump’s policies were really just Washington’s traditional stance on Palestine, with full and unconditional support for the state of Israel.
“US foreign policy has been consistent in being pro-Israel, whether it’s been the Republican or the Democrat Party in control,” Hawari told me. “The Trump administration wasn’t a break from this policy. It was certainly cruder in style and facilitated the acceleration of the colonisation of Palestine, but it wasn’t necessarily a huge break from US foreign policy.”
To expect Biden, a self-proclaimed Zionist, to change anything or compensate for the damage that his predecessor did is “overly optimistic,” she explained. The new US president has a history of supporting Israel’s aggression against the Palestinians.
As a US senator and as vice president under Barack Obama, he helped to ensure that America maintained its unwavering support for Israel. He was a key advocate, for example, in securing support for Israel’s Iron Dome, David’s Sling and Arrow 3 missile defence systems.
Indeed, Biden once said that American military aid to Israel is the “best” investment Washington makes. “If there weren’t an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region,” he told fellow senators.
Although he signed a number of Executive Orders overturning Trump decisions within 24 hours of his inauguration last week, the US president is not going to annul any decisions which favoured Israel. Although Biden has criticised Trump’s moving of the US Embassy to Jerusalem, he is not going to move it back to Tel Aviv.
Moreover, even though Biden has said that he will reinstate several Palestinian aid programmes that the Trump administration cut, such as funds for economic development and humanitarian aid, he has also echoed his predecessor’s view about aid to the Palestinian Authority (PA) being conditional upon cuts to government welfare payments that go to the families of Palestinian prisoners and Palestinians killed by Israel. This is something that the PA has refused to consider.
“Reinstating aid to the PA and to UNRWA comes with consequences,” said Dr Hawari. “It means a return to business as usual, in which Palestinians are sort of forced to make political concessions. If we look at the formula of negotiations over many decades, it’s one that has been not only unfair to Palestinians, but has also completely undermined fundamental Palestinian rights as well as international law.”
This is not good news for the Palestinians in their quest for self-determination, freedom and equality. A serious recalibration of US-Palestinian relations to make the changes necessary to promote peace in the region is imperative. Many doubt that the Biden administration can deliver such changes, especially since Vice President Kamala Harris is openly pro-Israel, as is new Secretary of State Antony Blinken.
The latter has pledged that America’s commitment to Israel’s security is “sacrosanct” and that the Biden administration will seek to build on the steps taken by Trump that are in Israel’s interests, such as the US Embassy move and the Abraham Accords normalisation deals with some Arab states. Last May, Blinken addressed a webinar organised by Democratic Majority for Israel. As US president, he promised, Biden will keep disputes with Israel out of the public eye. “Joe Biden,” he explained, “believes strongly in keeping your differences as far as possible between friends, behind doors, maintaining as little distance in public as possible.”
Harris, meanwhile, has been described as a “staunch supporter” of Israel, and delivered a speech at the influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in 2017, in which she expressed her support for the US giving Israel $38 billion in military aid over the following decade. When asked by the New York Times in 2019 whether she thinks Israel meets international human rights standards, she replied, “Overall, yes.” That is an extraordinary claim for an experienced lawyer to make.
“Pre-Trump,” noted Dr Hawari, “Democrat administrations were much more pro-Israel than the Republicans and American political institutions in general. The pro-Israel lobby is so strong in the US, you have to be pro-Israel just to survive in politics.”
The mainstream media more or less presents Biden as a figure of liberalism and peace, and someone who’s returned to the framework of negotiations in Palestine-Israel, she added. “They’re certainly presenting him in a very good light and I think this is dangerous. If Trump was ‘history’s [self-declared] most pro-Israel US president’, then Biden is being portrayed more of a friend of the Palestinians than he truly is.”
President Biden, then, may offer Palestinians a brief respite from the onslaught of the Trump years, but it is a mistake to believe that he will be a friend of Palestine. He is too much of a confirmed friend of Israel for that and, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken confirmed, Israel’s interests are paramount as far as this administration is concerned.