Biden’s win is good for Abbas but may not alter Palestinian reality
Four years of Donald Trump’s presidency has been a boon to Israel’s right-wing government under Benjamin Netanyahu and a curse for the Palestinians, in particular President Mahmoud Abbas.
Trump vowed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an unconventional manner. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, put together a plan that was embraced by Netanyahu and rebuffed by the Palestinians. It gave little to the latter other than separate enclaves that would constitute an entity they could call a state. It disregarded the fate of millions of refugees, the issues of East Jerusalem and genuine sovereignty, and recognized Jewish settlements in the West Bank as legally being part of Israel.
Abbas, one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, severed ties with Washington and in May he suspended security coordination with Israel as Netanyahu came close to announcing the formal annexation of major parts of the West Bank.
The Palestinian Authority almost collapsed as it battled the coronavirus pandemic and a failing economy. Having refused tax money collected on its behalf by Israel, its coffers were nearly empty.
Politically, Abbas became more isolated when some Arab countries announced they were normalizing ties with Israel. If Trump had won a second term, his plan for peace might have gained traction. Instead, Democratic candidate Joe Biden won the US presidential election.
During his campaign, the president-elect vowed to back the two-state solution and restore Washington’s ties with the Palestinians. Abbas therefore celebrated the election result.
It is true that Biden will try to revert to a pre-Trump, bipartisan, multilateral approach to foreign policy, especially concerning the Israel-Palestinian struggle. He will reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization’s office in Washington and restore financial aid to the Palestinians. He is likely to reverse Trump’s decision to defund the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
One can expect to see a more balanced take on the two-state solution, which continues to be backed by the majority of countries. While Biden is expected to reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem, he will not reverse Trump’s controversial decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move the US Embassy there from Tel Aviv. That is now water under the bridge.
Abbas, who last week resumed coordination with Israel after receiving a letter that reaffirmed Israel’s commitment to past agreements, should be wary of Biden’s victory, however. There is no going back to the previous status quo. Geopolitically, the situation has changed.
For one thing, while formal annexation plans have been put on hold, Israel’s avarice in terms of continuing to build illegal settlements will not be checked. In fact, Netanyahu has accelerated the rates of settlement building and evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem in the past few weeks, rendering irrelevant the letter sent to Abbas in which he committed to compliance with previous agreements.
A defiant Netanyahu is unlikely to slow the pace of settlement building in the near future and it is unlikely Biden will seek a clash with him in the early days of his administration. The new American president will be focused primarily on combating the spread of the coronavirus, which in recent weeks has spiraled out of control across the US.
What the Palestinians need is real unity — a goal that remains elusive, and the lack of which continues to discredit their leaders.
A new occupant in the White House is likely to slow the process of more countries opting to normalize ties with Israel but will not stop it. This is the new normal in Israeli-Arab ties. Biden’s desire to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal will strengthen the Arab-Israeli alliance.
There are at least two other factors that Abbas must consider. The first is the effect of his decision to resume coordination with Israel on reconciliation efforts between Fateh and Hamas, the latter of which criticized him for it. Without genuine unity, the Palestinian stance will remain weak and it is unlikely that a reconciliation will happen any time soon, casting doubt over the possibility of holding legislative and presidential elections in the near future.
The second factor has to do with the often toxic atmosphere of Israeli politics. Polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud is losing support and a majority of Israelis back a party even further to the right. The growing influence of extremist settlers cannot be discounted. A decade of Netanyahu rule has weakened centrist and leftist parties. The next Israeli leader might well be more extreme than even Netanyahu.
Faced with such prospects, Abbas and his aides must learn to adapt to the new geopolitical realities. Yes, Biden’s win will restore some badly needed balance to US policies in the region but it is unlikely to turn the two-state solution into a reality. The slow consumption of Palestinian land will continue for a while and the prospect of opposing US pressure might be overrated. What the Palestinians need is real unity — a goal that remains elusive, and the lack of which continues to discredit their leaders.
- Osama Al-Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman. Twitter: @plato010