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Is Biden any different from Trump on Palestine?

October 26, 2021 at 11:11 am

Prime Minister of Israel Naftali Bennett (R) meets US President Joe Biden (L) at the White House on August 27, 2021 in Washington, DC, United States [GPO – Anadolu Agency]

When Joe Biden was declared the winner in the US presidential election last November, expectations in Ramallah were high. A Biden administration, compared with the brazenly pro-Israel Donald Trump administration, would surely be much fairer to Palestinians. That was the conventional wisdom at the time.

Unsurprisingly, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas was among the first world leaders to congratulate Biden enthusiastically. “I look forward to working with the president-elect and his administration to strengthen Palestinian-American relations and to achieve freedom, independence, justice and dignity for our people,” said Abbas immediately after the election result was finally confirmed.

In contrast, the then Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, waited for a relatively long time to offer his congratulations in the hope, perhaps, that his close friend and staunch political ally Trump would succeed in reversing the election outcome.

Nearly a year later, however, it is hard to understand the Palestinian euphoria that prevailed in late 2020. And how do we explain the absence of criticism of the Biden administration for failing to reverse most of Trump’s pro-Israel decisions? These include the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital and the relocation of the US Embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city in violation of international law and even America’s own declared policies.

Why does the PA leadership remain largely silent on the fact that Biden and his team, despite their rhetoric about peace and dialogue, maintain the same degree of commitment to Israel as Trump? The short answer is money.

READ: Israel ‘is acting like an annexation government’, Peace Now says

The only tangible step with regard to Palestine that the Biden administration has taken in the past year has been the restoration of funds that Trump had cut from Palestinian aid in 2018, reversing at a stroke nearly three decades of America, along with other “donor countries”, bankrolling the PA.

In April, the White House declared its intention to restore some, though not all, of such funds given to the Palestinian Authority. An amount of $235 million was to be paid as $75m in economic and developmental assistance; $10m in “peacebuilding” programmes to be provided by USAID agency; and the remainder in humanitarian assistance to the UN agency for Palestine refugees, UNRWA.

The latter, however, did not come without caveats. On 14 July, UNRWA reached an agreement with Washington regarding the use of this money. The so-called Framework for Cooperation stipulated that, “The US will not make any contributions to UNRWA, except on the condition that UNRWA takes all feasible measures to ensure that no part of the US contribution is used to assist any refugee receiving military training” from any Palestinian resistance group. Under the agreement, which was strongly criticised by the Palestinians, UNRWA will receive an additional $135m from the US.

On the political front, however, there is little else to report. The Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) office in Washington, although expected to be reopened by Biden after its abrupt closure by Trump in September 2018, remains closed. Moreover, the US Consulate in Israeli-occupied East Jerusalem, which was also shut down by Biden’s predecessor, remains “a major point of contention” between Israel and the US, according to Axios.

As soon as the Biden administration declared its intention to reopen its mission in occupied Palestinian East Jerusalem, top Israeli officials poured into Washington to prevent even this symbolic Palestinian gain from taking place. Israeli Prime Minister Naftali Bennett raised the issue with Biden during their White House meeting in August, requesting the president to refrain from carrying out such a move. According to the Times of Israel, Bennett asked the Americans to open the consulate in Ramallah rather than Jerusalem.

In September, Israeli Foreign Minister Yair Lapid warned Washington that reinstating the US mission in East Jerusalem was a “bad idea”, suggesting that such a move could force the collapse of Israel’s fragile coalition government.

The subject also topped the agenda of Lapid’s meeting with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Washington earlier this month. Israeli officials revealed that Lapid told Blinken, “I don’t know how to hold this coalition together if you reopen the consulate.” This too was reported by Axios.

To avoid a confrontation and to buy time for the Israeli government, Blinken proposed the establishment of a joint committee to “discuss the issue with maximum discretion.” The Israeli government is thus using the current fractious ruling coalition as a pretence to defer the US decision on the consulate. It is hinting that if the US reopens the consulate before the government budget passes in November, the coalition will dissolve, with the ominous possibility of Netanyahu’s return.

It is expected that the committee will not be formed until the budget vote. Even then, it is unclear if Washington will succeed in persuading Israel to respect Biden’s consulate decision.

READ: US takes steps to return to UN cultural body; waiving anti-Palestinian Senate law

Notably, while the matter of the consulate should concern Palestinians the most, no Palestinian official will be included in the exclusive and secretive Blinken-Lapid committee. More bizarrely, the PA does not seem to mind this snub. There has been no public outcry by Abbas and his officials. This, of course, is typical of the PA, and will remain the case for as long as US funds are finding their way into PA coffers. All other issues appear to have little or no urgency. It’s all about the money.

If a political compromise is found, and the US Consulate is finally reopened, will it alter the reality on the ground? Since 1994, the consulate has played a largely symbolic role, one that mattered most to the PA. It hardly changed the political equation in favour of the Palestinians. In a telling and surreal reference to the consulate, Noga Tarnopolsky wrote in the Los Angeles Times in 2019: “The consulate was known for hosting one of the liveliest parties on Jerusalem’s annual schedule, a 4 July gala held on the front lawn.”

A stone’s throw away from the city’s “liveliest parties”, hundreds of Palestinian families are either being evicted from their homes or face the risk of eviction by the US-funded Israeli police and army. A little further away is Israel’s apartheid wall that continues to segment occupied Palestine according to race, ethnicity and religion. We are justified, then, in not being too optimistic that the reopening of the US mission will change the horrific status quo in any way whatsoever.

The Joe Biden administration is proving to be nothing but a soft facade for the same policies enacted by Donald Trump. The only apparent difference is that, this time, Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority, for self-serving reasons, do not seem to mind.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.