May 25,2021 – Last updated at May 25,202100 googleplus000
Facing his first international crisis test US President Joe Biden sought to cushion Israel from facing reprimand at the UN Security Council, opting instead to publicly support its right to self defence while exerting pressure on Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in private to wrap up the military operation in Gaza. After an 11-day showdown between Israel and armed Palestinian factions in Gaza, Biden succeeded in convincing Netanyahu to observe a ceasefire, apparently negotiated by Egypt. Hamas and Islamic Jihad also agreed to what appears to have been an unconditional truce.
But beyond the recent clash the Biden administration had taken a number of steps on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict which were seen as key to redefining the US role as an interlocutor. The US had rejected Israeli measures aimed at evicting the Palestinian residents of Shiekh Jarrah neighbourhood in occupied East Jerusalem. It also criticised recurrent Israeli incursions of Al Aqsa Mosque and underlined Jordan’s special role over the holy site. Even before the war on Gaza had erupted, the State Department said that the US considers the West Bank as occupied territory and that the future of Jerusalem remains unresolved.
The US had resumed aid to Palestinian institutions and reinstated its financial support of UNRWA. More relevant, President Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken have recommitted the US to the two-state solution as the only path to ending the decades-old conflict. These are important, though for the time being remain largely symbolic gestures that reverse some of president Donald Trump’s unilateral decisions that have complicated the conflict and emboldened Israeli illegal measures in the occupied territories.
Pundits believe that President Biden and his foreign policy team wanted to reset US stand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, to conform with international law and resolutions, but without getting involved in a new peace initiative and doing the heavy lifting. Other regional files had precedent including pulling US troops from Afghanistan, resolving the Yemen crisis and most importantly rejoining the Iran nuclear deal.
But Israeli provocations in East Jerusalem and the eruption of yet another military face-off between Israel and militant groups in Gaza have forced the Biden administration to step in; finding itself at the centre of another dark chapter of an endemic conflict.
Now Secretary Blinken and CIA Director William Burns are in the region mainly to cement the ceasefire and discuss ways to alleviate the humanitarian crisis in Gaza. They will listen to regional leaders who will underline the need to restart peace talks aimed at reaching the two-state solution. They will recommit US support to that solution but it is unlikely that Blinken will do much more. The political vacuum in Israel, which is likely to take the country to a fifth general election, will not permit for a new peace initiative, he will argue. Furthermore, in a press conference this week Biden said that there will be no peace until Israel’s neighbours recognise it as an independent Israel; a controversial demand that has been rejected by the Palestinian Authority (PA).
One fundamental concern for the US and its western and Arab allies is how to rehabilitate the PA and President Mahmoud Abbas after a series of political debacles that have eroded their standing among Palestinians. During the 11-day war President Biden made his first telephone call to Abbas since taking office. The White House says Biden “expressed his support for steps to enable the Palestinian people to enjoy the dignity, security, freedom and economic opportunity that they deserve” and highlighted the resumption of US aid to the Palestinians under his administration. Blinken also called Abbas and is expected to head to Ramallah this week to meet the Palestinian leader.
Last month Abbas postponed indefinitely legislative elections amid criticism by Palestinian factions. Now there is pressure on Abbas to form a national unity government that will include Hamas. Salvaging the PA is crucial to Israel as well as the United States and its allies. But a growing number of Palestinians believe the PA has failed to deliver peace and end the occupation while suppressing Palestinian voices and going as far as coordinating with Israel to hunt down Palestinian activists.
While Abbas and the rest of the world continue to hang on to the two-state solution, less and less Israelis and Palestinians believe in its viability. A poll conducted jointly by Palestinian Centre for Policy and Survey Research (PSR) in Ramallah and the Evens Programme in Mediation and Conflict Management at Tel Aviv University in 2019 found that only 43 per cent of Palestinians in the West Bank and 42 per cent of Israelis support the two-state solution. Another poll, conducted in 2020 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, found that, 58 per cent in the West Bank and 62 per cent in Gaza said that even if a two-state solution is reached, conflict with Israel should continue until the Palestinians regain all territory.
Biden and his team know that Israel’s right wing politicians will never accept the two-state solution and it is they who are likely to form the next government in Israel with or without Netanyahu. For now Biden will manage the conflict remotely and carefully rather than get personally involved. If change is to happen it would have to take place inside Israel itself and that is unlikely to occur in the near future.
Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman.