Biden administration takes a balanced path of a mutually agreed two-state solution to ensure peace and security in both Israel and Palestine
President Joe Biden seems to be resetting the US policies towards Israel-Palestine conflict by adopting a more middle-of-the-road approach unlike his predecessor Donald Trump, who offered vast support to the Jewish state, often at the expense of Palestinian rights. This is evident from the recent announcement by the US administration that Biden's Middle East policy "will be to support mutually agreed two-state solution in which Israel lives in peace and security, alongside a viable Palestinian state". The administration is also restoring ties with the Palestinians and offering renewed aid to Palestinian refugees — a reversal of the Trump administration's cutoff — and a key element of its new support for a two-state solution to the decades-old conflict between Israel and Palestine.
Giving the first official policy statement of the Biden administration on the Israel-Palestine conflict, Acting US Ambassador Richard Mills told a high-level virtual Security Council meeting that the new dispensation believes this "remains the best way to ensure Israel's future as a democratic and Jewish state while upholding the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations for a state of their own and to live with dignity and security." Mills underlined President Biden's even-handed approach to the conflict.
The statement was further emphasised by the White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki, who said, "the President's view continues to be that a two-state solution is the only path forward."
The Trump administration had provided unprecedented support to Israel, recognising Jerusalem as Israel's capital, moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, slashing financial assistance for Palestine and reversing course on the illegitimacy of Israeli settlements on land claimed by Palestine. While the Trump administration had been widely hailed in the US for the normalisation agreements between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Sudan; the rights of Palestinians had been largely ignored since Trump assumed office in 2017.
He also cut off USD 360 million annual funding to UNRAW, the United Nations agency providing support for Palestinian refugees who fled or were forced from their homes during the war surrounding Israel's establishment in 1948. It provided education, healthcare, food and other assistance to some 5.5 million refugees and their descendants in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, as well as Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. The US was UNRAW's major donor and the loss of funds has created a severe financial crisis for the agency.
Trump also reduced other aids to Palestine and closed the Palestinian Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Washington in 2018, effectively shutting down the Palestinians' diplomatic mission to the US, against the backdrop of the Palestinian Authority's boycott of his administration following the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel's capital.
In 2019, Trump went against international consensus and recognised Israel's claim to Jerusalem as its "eternal and undivided capital" and its decades-long occupation of the Syrian Golan Heights. His administration also supported Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories that are considered illegal under the international laws.
Palestinians, who want occupied East Jerusalem as the capital of their future state, denounced the US move to shift its embassy to Jerusalem. Israel captured East Jerusalem and the West Bank in the 1967 war. The international community considers both areas to be occupied territories, and the Palestinians seek them as parts of a future independent state. Israel has built a far-flung network of settlements that house nearly seven lakh Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Jerusalem since their capture in 1967.
In 2020, the Trump administration released its long-promised "Middle East plan", which critics said amounted to "apartheid" of the Palestinian people. The plan envisions a disjointed Palestinian state that turns over key parts of the West Bank to Israel, siding with Israel on key contentious issues including borders, the status of Jerusalem and Jewish settlements. Palestinians vehemently rejected it. Arab observers say that Biden is expected to take a more middle-of-the-road approach to the conflict akin to previous democratic administrations.
The Biden administration is not just voicing support for the two-state solution, but also indicating that the outgoing administration has paid mere lip service to the idea while allowing Israeli settlement construction go unchecked in all parts of the West Bank for the past four years.
Biden has a long history of criticising settlement construction and has done so several times during his election campaign. His administration seems to be taking a posture of "do no harm" by ensuring that neither side takes additional unilateral steps that make the prospect of two states even more distant or closing it entirely. Mills talked about the US restoring "credible engagement with Palestinians as well as Israelis" in order to advance Biden administration policies on the issue.
According to him, the US would work to build confidence on both sides to create an environment to reach a two-state solution. For this, he said, "The United States will urge Israel Government and the Palestinians to avoid unilateral steps that make a two-state solution more difficult, such as the annexation of territory, settlement activity, demolitions, incitement to violence and providing compensation for individuals in prison for acts of terrorism."
Israel has accused the Palestinians of inciting violence and has vehemently objected to the Palestinian Authorities paying families of those imprisoned for attacking or killing Israelis. Mills' statement is the beginning of what is expected to be a reset from the pro-Israel policies of Trump's administration, often at the expense of Palestinians' rights. However, the Biden administration would keep its embassy in Jerusalem. This was stated by Antony Blinken during his confirmation hearing as the Secretary of State.
Observers say that Biden is expected to remain a staunch supporter of Israel and would continue his longstanding policy of opposing one-sided resolutions and other actions in international bodies that he viewed as unfair to Israel. While Washington plans to embrace the Palestinians as a means to bring the parties back on a path toward a two-state solution, they say that this will not come at Israel's expense. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Biden's nominee to become the full-time ambassador at the UN, made several gestures to Jerusalem during her confirmation hearing that indicated the same.
"I look forward to standing with Israel, standing against the unfair targeting of Israel, the relentless resolutions proposed against Israel unfairly," Linda Thomas-Greenfield told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The writer is a former Editor of PTI and served as the West Asia correspondent for the same. Views expressed are personal