The Palestine-Israel conflict has been one of the most interminable diplomatic crises of modern times. Every US President has vowed to put an end to the everlasting dissension and reach an overarching solution. Joe Biden, the President-Elect of the United States, is no different.
With the legal battles over alleged voter fraud over, the inauguration of a Biden administration is looming around the corner. In theory, President-elect Joe Biden has a long history of diplomatic relationship with Israel and a broad understanding of the issues plaguing this region. What he can and may do in practice however, is an entirely different discussion, and one that will take considerable effort to properly unfold.
Israel's hostility towards the Obama administration
Before diving into Biden's potential role in this conflict, a little bit of history can help to put things in context. Historically, Democrats have thrown their weights behind a two-state solution. In general, the US publicly maintained the role of an honest broker while favouring Israel in practice. However, during the Obama administration, things began to change.
To put it lightly, the Obama administration had a complicated relationship with Israel. President Obama made a lot of decisions that antagonised the right wing Israeli PM Benjamin "Bibi" Netanyahu.
For starters, Obama went to Cairo to speak to the Muslim World but avoided going to Israel despite it being just hours away, something no president had done before. The Obama administration was also a strident critique of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and even allowed the UN Security Council to declare Israeli settlements in the West Bank as illegitimate.
In response, Netanyahu threw some punches at the Obama administration as well. In 2010, Bibi Netanyahu practically humiliated Joe Biden, then Vice President of the United States with the declaration of new settlements, as soon as he landed on Israeli soil for a diplomatic visit. The Vice President was furious and reprimanded Israel over the new settlement during his visit and reportedly simmered down only after Bibi took him to a dinner and personally apologised.
Another apple of discord between the Obama administration and Israel was the Iran Nuclear Deal. Netanyahu vigorously disapproved of the agreement and branded it a threat to Israel's national security. However, the Obama administration went through with the deal anyway, which further aggravated the relationship between the two leaders. Eventually, Benjamin Netanyahu struck back with an unannounced visit to the US Congress where he addressed them directly without prior knowledge of President Obama. There, he condemned the P5+1 and urged them to shoot it down. In fact, Bibi was the only foreign leader after Winston Churchill to attain this feat.
Unprecedented favours from the Trump administration
The Trump administration has been nothing short of a sweetheart to Israel's far-right leaders. Over the past four years, President Trump has favoured the Israelis in every controversy. Most of these gestures, however, have been rhetorical in nature. For instance, in 2017, Donald Trump granted formal recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, an area former US Presidents treated with enhanced caution. Later in May of 2018, the US moved its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Trump also famously backed out from the Iran Nuclear Deal, a treaty the Israeli administration truly despised. Quite recently, Trump brokered the Abraham Accords which normalised Israel's relationship with Bahrain and the UAE.
In 2019, Trump signed a Presidential Proclamation recognising Israel's sovereignty over the Golan Heights. US Secretary Mike Pompeo even visited the Golan Heights and famously commented that the annexation of the Golan Heights was not inconsistent with international law. However, the UN and most foreign policy pundits would beg to differ and argue that such a political stunt only rewards aggression and encourages further hostility.
To make matters worse, Iran accused Israel of assassinating one of their top nuclear scientists, Mohsen Fakhrizadeh. Fakhrizadeh was killed in an armed attack on his vehicle in broad daylight while he was travelling in the Northern town of Absard.
The Israelis however, couldn't be more favourable to Trump. A recent survey before the 2020 election found that a whopping 45 percent of Israeli citizens approved of Trump, despite him being endorsed by neo-Nazis and white-supremacists. Interestingly, only 27 percent of American Jews were expected to vote for Trump.
Prospects for a Biden Presidency
Even though Netanyahu showed considerable hostility towards Barack Obama, it would be foolish to assume that he feels the same way about Joe Biden. Some Israeli diplomats reportedly branded Biden as the 'good cop' as opposed to Barack Obama's 'bad cop' routine. In fact, whenever President Obama and Netanyahu clashed with each other, Biden was the one who smoothed things over.
Biden has been a fervent supporter of Israel from very early days in his political career. In 1986, Joe Biden famously said to lawmakers, "It's about time we stop apologising for our support for Israel. It is the best $3 billion investment we make. If there weren't an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interest in the region."
Biden is a self-proclaimed Zionist and he regularly attends and speaks at programmes organised by Zionist lobby groups such as American Israeli Public Affairs Committee and J Street. Much like earlier Democratic Presidents, Joe Biden will also emphasise on the two-state solutions while unilaterally supporting Israel in most policy aspects.
Joe Biden has also promised that he will not relocate the US embassy back to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, essentially validating Trump's controversial move in 2017.
However, that does not automatically translate into the amelioration of the relationship between the US (more precisely, Democrats outraged by the Bibi's 2015 Address in Congress) and Israel.
Firstly, Biden will continue to push for the Iran Nuclear Agreement to denuclearise Iran for the time being, something Netanyahu is not a big fan of. Biden will also face difficulties in further arbitration with Iran, given that their top nuclear scientist was reportedly murdered by either USA or Israel.
Secondly, Israel may find Biden considerably more critical of their illegal settlements in Golan Heights and other regions, rightfully belonging to Palestine.
According to pundits, Biden will inherit the crisis under circumstances that are radically different from those of 2016, thanks to Trump. Trump essentially gave a free pass to Israel in terms of illegal settlements and encroachment of Palestinian estate. This essentially obliterated years of groundwork in building trust within the region, something that may be irreversible for not only Biden but future presidents as well.
Progressives fear that Biden's role as a moderate peace broker won't be enough to save the remaining possibilities for a two state solution. According to them, the US must adopt a stricter position (for instance: BDS- Boycott, Divest and Sanction) in terms of illegal settlements and hold Israel accountable for their actions.
However, it's unlikely that Biden, a long-term centrist, will adopt such positions. In fact, he publicly denounced BDS while emphasising on Israel's strategic importance in protecting US interests in the Middle East.
In summary, Biden has the opportunity to reverse some of the damaging consequences of decisions made by the Trump administration. In order to do so, he will have to adopt a firmer position in dealing with Israel. Otherwise, the dreams of an independent Palestine are as good as over.
Sheikh Rafi Ahmed is a fourth year economics student from University of Dhaka.