An​ Israeli airstrike i​n the southern Gaza Strip, ​May 2021
Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash90 / Redu​x

President Joe Biden and his team came into office understandably hoping to deprioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. They saw Washington-led negotiations as a trap that had ensnared previous U.S. administrations, and the prospects for progress looked bleaker than ever.

But some issues can’t be ignored. As last month’s escalation between Israel and Hamas underscored, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict requires regular U.S. engagement to avoid spasms of violence that sap Washington’s ability to deal with other priorities.

The Biden administration isn’t wrong to eschew yet another round of high-profile negotiations. The conflict isn’t ripe for resolution. But Biden does need a concerted strategy to improve the trajectory of the conflict—and to prevent periodic flare-ups—while still preserving the possibility of a two-state solution. The surprise ouster of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week, and the inauguration of a new Israeli government led by the conservative Naftali Bennett and the centrist Yair Lapid, offers Biden a unique opportunity to do just that.

HARD LESSONS

Although it was an unwelcome distraction, the recent conflict holds important lessons that should inform the Biden administration’s approach to managing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Among the most important is that small details matter a great deal—and they have the potential to become big international headaches. This latest round of violence began with a local dispute over the potential eviction of four Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem but soon exploded into an international crisis that absorbed hours of Biden’s time. In part because the Trump administration closed the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which since 1994 had functioned both as a de facto embassy for the Palestinians and a vital early-warning system for Washington, the Biden administration missed the initial signs that a conflict was brewing. Of course, the president and secretary of state should not be paying attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on a daily basis, but the United States needs seasoned diplomats on the ground who can quickly raise the alarm at the highest levels of government.

Another important lesson is that while the United States remains a central player in the conflict, it cannot solve problems on its own. Once the crisis erupted, the Biden administration helped de-escalate the violence. Rather than openly call for a cease-fire, which Israel would have resisted for at least a few days, Biden pushed for it privately while publicly aligning himself with Israel. As a result, he was able to help end the bloodshed in just 11 days. But he had some help: Biden relied on Egypt to mediate between Hamas and Israel, leveraging its deep relations with both parties and its strong interest in swiftly ending a conflict on its border.

Biden’s options were also shaped by shifting domestic politics in the United States. The old Democratic playbook of unquestioningly supporting Israel has become untenable. When Biden traveled to Michigan to promote electric cars last month, the news cycle was overtaken by protests by Arab American organizations angered by the deaths of Palestinian civilians and children. In the past, it might have been possible to shrug off such demonstrations. No longer: partly because Netanyahu spent years aligning himself closely with the Republican Party and partly because of the parallels many progressives see between the Palestinian cause and the challenges that minority groups face in the United States, the Democratic Party has grown more sympathetic to Palestinian rights. Biden has so far pursued a traditional U.S. policy of support for Israel, which still has plenty of backing in the party. Going forward, however, mounting pressure from congressional Democrats to acknowledge the Palestinian perspective will limit his room to maneuver. On the other hand, it will also increase his leverage to push Israel to refrain from provocative actions such as evictions in Jerusalem or home demolitions in the West Bank.

Israeli and Palestinian politics are too dysfunctional for a high-profile peace initiative to have any chance of success.

The final lesson of the most recent flare-up is that Israeli and Palestinian politics are too dysfunctional for a high-profile peace initiative to have any chance of success. In the run-up to the conflict, Netanyahu was so concerned with his own political survival that he allowed right-wing extremists in his coalition to fan the flames of resentment by, among other things, refusing to intervene when Israeli police took increasingly provocative steps in Jerusalem. The new Israeli “change” coalition spans the political spectrum and includes the first Arab party to join an Israeli government. It represents a major improvement over Netanyahu’s corrupt and antidemocratic government. But all eight parties in the coalition essentially hold veto over important issues, making it impossible to take big steps of any kind on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This means the United States should aim to discourage Israel from making things worse by continuing the current pace of settlement construction in the West Bank and instead work quietly to advance practical, nonideological issues such as improving access to electricity and water in Gaza and granting building permits to Palestinians in parts of the West Bank that are currently under full Israeli control. 

On the Palestinian side, the political terrain is even more fraught. The latest explosion of violence came only weeks after President Mahmoud Abbas canceled what would have been the first elections in Palestine in 15 years. Hamas had seen those elections as an opportunity to assume a bigger role in Palestinian politics; with elections out of the picture, the militant group instead opted to increase its influence by cynically using the tensions in Jerusalem as an excuse to launch rockets at great cost to both Israeli and Palestinian civilians. The Palestinian Authority came out of this conflict significantly weakened: it proposed elections only to cancel them and then appeared irrelevant and detached during the subsequent fighting. Until the deadlock between Hamas and Fatah—the political party that controls the Palestinian Authority—is broken, Palestinian politics will remain divided, corrupt, and authoritarian, making it extraordinarily difficult to achieve serious progress toward an agreement with the Israelis.

In both Palestine and Israel, talk of a two-state solution has all but ceased. For the Palestinians, a state of their own seems like a pipe dream. They are focused on preserving their homes and winning or maintaining basic rights, such as freedom of movement and ballot access. Israelis, meanwhile, believe that they lack a negotiating partner on the other side. Many prefer to pretend that the Palestinians do not exist, until every few years rockets temporarily force them to recall otherwise.

A PATH FORWARD  

To improve the trajectory of the conflict and enhance its ability to manage future outbursts, the United States should start by reopening its consulate in Jerusalem. With its deep contacts not just to the Palestinian leadership but to the broader Palestinian society, the consulate for years helped the United States monitor the delicate situation on the ground and raise the alarm in Washington when things became dangerous, giving senior officials time to intervene and press all sides to back down.

During his recent trip to the Middle East, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced plans to reopen the consulate. Doing so will require cooperation from the Israelis, however, some of whom say the consulate should go elsewhere now that the United States recognizes Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. But relocating the consulate would anger the Palestinians, undermining U.S. efforts to deepen ties with them and ensure a clearer window into the conflict. U.S. officials must work with the new Israeli government to manage the delicate politics around this issue, especially since Netanyahu—now the opposition leader—is the loudest voice demanding the relocation of the U.S. consulate. At the same time, however, they must stress to their Israeli counterparts that this is an issue not of ideology but of practicality: getting eyes on the ground. As Israel’s closest and most important partner, the United States should be able to count on Israel’s full cooperation, especially given that a number of European countries have consulates in Jerusalem that serve a similar function.

The Biden administration should also prioritize improving the terrible conditions in Gaza, where 75,000 families are newly homeless after the most recent spate of fighting. The 2.2 million Palestinians who live in Gaza can rely on only around eight hours of electricity per day; just ten percent of them have access to safe water. But the United States cannot address this humanitarian crisis alone, because it has no presence on the ground in Gaza and will not engage with Hamas. Instead, the United States must work closely with Egypt and the UN Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace on a joint plan for Gaza reconstruction. The United States should play the role of coordinator and enforcer in such an effort, leaning on regional players—especially the Gulf states—to make the needed investments in a coordinated fashion and encouraging Israel to remain cooperative.

Once aid begins to flow to Gaza, the biggest challenge will be to avoid empowering Hamas.

Israel has said that it will allow aid for reconstruction to flow into Gaza only after Hamas returns two Israeli citizens currently being held in the strip as well as the remains of two Israeli soldiers. The Biden administration should privately communicate to Israel that the living conditions for 2.2 million people cannot be held hostage to this issue. But it should also elevate its public support for the release of the hostages and the soldiers’ remains and press other international players to speak out more forcefully on this issue.  

Once the aid begins to flow, the biggest challenge will be to avoid empowering Hamas. After the last conflict in Gaza in 2014, the UN Special Coordinator for Middle East Peace developed a complex mechanism for vetting all aid delivered to Gaza. But within a few years, aid from Qatar was allowed to bypass this mechanism and wound up going straight to Hamas with the full consent and cooperation of Netanyahu’s government. In part because of these funds, Hamas was able to rebuild its military capability.

The new reconstruction effort should include a refined system for vetting aid recipients, based on lessons learned over the last seven years. But it should also place a much greater emphasis on delivering resources and opportunities that Hamas will struggle to control or siphon off. For example, upgrades to Egyptian and Israeli power lines that feed into Gaza’s grid could dramatically expand the amount of electricity available to Gazans without requiring much direct investment in Gaza itself. Israel could also grant Gazans permits to work in Israel, which would increase remittances to the impoverished strip. Since Israeli authorities would vet anyone applying for a permit, they could ensure that these funds would not reach Hamas. The Israel Defense Forces have in the past supported this idea, but politicians have rejected it because of security concerns. Yet Israel grants thousands of work permits to residents of the West Bank, who travel back and forth to Israel every day. Certainly, allowing Gazans to do the same would make more sense than simply sending cash to Hamas.

NEW GOVERNMENT, NEW OPPORTUNITIES

The dawn of a new political era in Israel gives the Biden administration an opening to contribute to some limited progress in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Because the new coalition government is so diverse, it will not be able to agree on major policy changes and will be highly motivated to avoid major conflagrations. This gives Washington an opportunity to quietly press the Israeli government to eschew further evictions of Palestinians in Jerusalem, halt the announcement of new settlement construction, and avoid clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli police at holy sites such as the one known to Jews as the Temple Mount and to Muslims as Haram al-Sharif.

The Biden administration also has an opportunity to engage with—and empower—more constructive voices in Israel. Lapid, a centrist who under the terms of the coalition will be foreign minister for two years and then prime minister, is now possibly the most powerful politician in Israel, having forged the political alliance that toppled Netanyahu and that holds the most seats in the Knesset. Lapid has prioritized repairing relations with Jordan, a key partner on Israeli-Palestinian issues whose relationship with Israel suffered under Netanyahu. Biden’s team should work closely with Lapid at the Foreign Ministry to reestablish the long-agreed status quo on the Temple Mount, which allows Jews and Muslims to visit the site but only Muslims to pray at it and is critically important to Jordan as the custodian of Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem. The Biden administration should also try to build a cooperative relationship with officials in Israel’s Transportation Ministry, which is responsible for road construction and as a result plays a critical role in expanding settlements in the West Bank. The Transportation Ministry is now controlled by the left-wing Labor Party, which also holds the Public Security Ministry that oversees the police, whose heavy-handedness helped stoke tensions in recent months. Quiet cooperation with Labor leaders on both sets of issues could yield positive results.

U.S. officials should also reach out to Arab citizens of Israel, who for the first time are represented by an Arab party—the United Arab List—in the coalition government. Arabs make up 20 percent of the population of Israel, and their inclusion in government could have profound long-term implications for Israeli politics. In recent years, Arab parties have won anywhere from ten to 15 seats in the Knesset, making them a potentially influential bloc, but they always refused to join the government. If that taboo has been broken, the Arab Israeli community could gain significant leverage over social and economic policy in Israel that could even have spillover benefits for Palestinians in the West Bank, Jerusalem, and Gaza. For the moment, simply taking more meetings with representatives from these communities and elevating their voices would be a positive first step for the Biden administration.  

On the Palestinian side of the conflict, the United States and its partners should encourage Fatah and Hamas to pursue a power-sharing arrangement that would break the current deadlock. Elections would have been one way to achieve such an arrangement. But because Hamas’s popularity has surged in the wake of the recent fighting, Fatah will not agree to elections anytime soon. The United States should therefore support the indirect negotiations between Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Hamas that recently began in Egypt. These talks aim to achieve a more durable cease-fire but could expand to explore a possible Palestinian unity government that would include both Fatah and Hamas. 

Such a unity government could work only with Israeli acquiescence and would thus require a three-way deal. Hamas would have to make major concessions to both Israel and the Palestinian Authority: it would have to acknowledge that the Palestine Liberation Organization is the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, agree to abide by a long-term cease-fire with Israel in both Gaza and the West Bank, cede control of key ministries in Gaza to the Palestinian Authority, halt expansion of its military capabilities, and start a gradual process of disarmament. In exchange, it would receive a formal role in Palestinian governing institutions, accepted by the international community and by Israel. It would also receive a gradual relaxation of, and eventual end to, the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza. 

At the same time as it recalibrates its engagement with both the Israelis and the Palestinians, the Biden administration should rethink how it talks about and seeks to support a two-state solution, an outcome that none of the parties believe to be possible in the near term. Biden should not walk away from two states, which remains the most viable way to ensure freedom, prosperity, and security for Israelis and Palestinians. To preserve that possibility, his administration should increasingly emphasize the importance of Palestinian rights and freedom. Washington should take a stronger stand against Israeli policies that limit where Palestinians can live or move to, unequal legal practices that ensure Israelis in the West Bank get due process while channeling Palestinians through military courts with conviction rates of nearly 100 percent, and the travesty of Israel’s policy of arresting and detaining young children for throwing rocks. Shining a light on these practices and pushing the Israelis to change them is the best way to restore faith in the two-state solution and to uphold American values.

None of these steps would immediately move the Israelis and the Palestinians closer to the ever-elusive solution of two states. But they would put the conflict on a better trajectory, preserving the possibility of a just peace sometime in the future and improving the United States’ ability to intervene and prevent unnecessary bloodshed in the meantime.

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  • ILAN GOLDENBERG is Director of the Middle East Security Program at the Center for a New American Security.
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