As President Joe Biden was sworn in on 20 January, there was rampant debate in Israeli political circles about possible changes in American foreign policy. Can such changes impact Israeli interests? Two issues were deemed especially critical: reaching a settlement with the Palestinians and addressing the nuclear threat from Iran. There are two questions on the minds of Israeli leaders right now.
First, will Biden withdraw the deal of the century that was pushed by former president Donald Trump? This included recognition of Israeli sovereignty over Jewish settlements in the West Bank and establishing a Palestinian state on 70 per cent of the West Bank in addition to the Gaza Strip. At the same time, it left the demarcation of borders between East and West Jerusalem to bilateral negotiations without breaching the unity of the city now recognised as the capital of Israel.
Secondly, after eliminating the deal of the century, would Biden present a new vision for relaunching talks between Palestinians and Israelis? What would become of the gains Israel made in the deal, which the Palestinians officially rejected? Will Biden’s new path of negotiations erase those gains?
The only statement by the Biden administration came on 27 January, when the US Deputy Ambassador to the United Nations Richard Mills told the Security Council: “Under the new administration, the policy of the United States will be to support a mutually agreed two-state solution, one in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state. In order to advance these objectives, the Biden administration will restore credible US engagement with Palestinians as well as Israelis. This will involve renewing US relations with the Palestinian leadership and Palestinian people.”
These statements do not suggest that the Biden administration has a plan to relaunch talks between Palestinians and Israelis any time soon. All that it is likely to do is revive US relations with the Palestinians after they deteriorated gravely under Trump. Biden may later resort to reviving the negotiating process between the two sides, but within a regional framework that takes advantage of Israel’s desire to expand normalisation with Arab countries, a process that began during Trump’s tenure, and so put pressure on the Israeli government. Arab countries would then announce their sponsorship of negotiations with US participation, on condition that Israel should commit to a two-state solution. Or perhaps he will revive the role of the Quartet (US, Russia, EU and UN) as sponsors of the process, on the same terms.
In any case, Biden will endeavour to avoid a clash with Israel, leaving the entire issue to a wider regional or international framework. This means fruitless negotiations and a repeat of previous, useless solutions, since Israel directly rejects a two-state solution or indirectly promotes what is known as negotiations without conditions, which the Palestinian leadership tried during former US president Barack Obama’s tenure only to meet with failure.
Making matters even more complicated, in March Israel will hold its fourth election in two years. In election campaigns and statements by the Prime Minister and leader of the Likud Party Benjamin Netanyahu and his rivals in the right wing camp -- which he allegedly leads -- such as Naftali Bennett, leader of the Yamina Party and Gideon Saar, leader of the New Hope Party, it is apparent that right wing leaders are competing over who will be more hardline in rejecting a two-state solution.
Netanyahu, as usual, is being elusive by theoretically accepting the two-state solution but practically refusing to grant Palestinians a real and viable state. He focuses on issues that guarantee Israel’s security, which in reality means putting a weaponless, symbolic Palestinian state under Israel’s full control within the borders that Israel decides for it.
Meanwhile, Bennett, who previously served as minister of defence in Netanyahu’s government, is adamant about openly rejecting the establishment of a Palestinian state even with minimal sovereign powers and on minimal possible land. Newcomer Saar has joined the fray, declaring his rejection of a two-state solution and stating in an interview with the Times of Israel in January, “I think the national interest for Israel is in the direction of autonomy [for the Palestinians], with regional arrangements, and not an independent Palestinian state, which is both impossible and dangerous, and not a single, binational state either.”
To put it more plainly, the Biden administration will not be able to achieve any real breakthrough in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict because of the growing power of right-wing parties in Israel, which all reject a two-state solution.
On Iran, Israel is worried that Biden will initiate a return to the nuclear deal signed by Iran and the five major world powers in the Security Council as well as Germany in 2015. The US withdrew from the deal in 2018. On 12 January, Bloomberg published a report titled “Israel Wants to Derail Biden’s Plan to Rejoin Iran Nuclear Deal”, which details how Israel is disturbed by Washington merely considering a return to the nuclear deal with Iran.
Netanyahu had described a return to the deal as a major mistake, and he is trying to convince the Biden administration not to rejoin the deal, even if Iran said it was willing to recommit to obligations it abandoned after Trump withdrew from the agreement and reinstated sanctions. Netanyahu believes any new deal with Iran must include a ban on the production of ballistic missiles that can carry nuclear heads, as well as more guarantees to block Iran from continuing enriching nuclear fuel in the future.
On 19 January, Iran responded to unofficial reports that Biden may invite Tehran to negotiate a new deal that could include the six countries involved in the 2015 agreement, as well as Saudi Arabia. Iranian media reported that Iran’s Foreign Ministry Spokesman Saeed Khatibzadeh said: “The nuclear deal is an international multilateral agreement adopted by the Security Council in Resolution 2231, and is non-negotiable. The signatories are clear and cannot be changed.”
On 22 January, Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif published an article in Foreign Policy stating, “If the US begins to unconditionally lift all the sanctions on Iran that were imposed, renewed or reclassified since Trump took office”, then Tehran will reverse the measures it has taken since the US withdrew from the nuclear deal in 2018.
Overall, whether on the Palestinian issue or Iran’s nuclear portfolio, Biden will face serious challenges in making a real breakthrough. In the end, it will depend on Washington’s overall strategy and its vision for achieving its interests across the globe, especially in the face of Chinese and Russian ambitions. Only when this strategy is formulated will Biden’s policy on the Middle East and those two issues in particular be clear.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 4 February , 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly