The United States (US) foreign policy under US President-elect Joe Biden, after he takes office, is expected to maintain its current broad features vis-à-vis the Palestine issue, with Israel remaining a cornerstone of this policy. While US policy may tone down some of the crude and tough approach of the Trump administration, it is unlikely to reverse the decision to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem, and the current US position on settlements in the West Bank (WB). At the same time, the Biden administration is likely to jump-start the negotiating process, and offer inducements to the Palestinian Authority (PA) to this end, and to encourage it to freeze reconciliation talks and attempts to put the Palestinian house in order.
The new US administration may not be fully congruent with the whims of Benjamin Netanyahu and the Israeli right, but it will seek to manage the relationship with the latter in a way that it believes will better serve the Zionist project. It is unlikely therefore for the new US administration to pressure Israel to do things it rejects, while it is likely to continue to seek to expand Arab and Islamic normalization with Israel.
In such circumstances, the Palestinian forces and factions must work to shore up their unity and work harder to implement reconciliation and put the Palestinian house in order. The US administration must be made to understand that the Palestinian people will not relinquish their rights, and that the peoples of the region reject US hegemony and normalization with Israel.
Introduction: The Determinants of the Incoming US Administration’s Policy Vis-à-Vis the Palestine Issue
From the outset, tensions have soured the relationship between the PA and the administration of outgoing President Donald Trump, thanks to his policies that are extremely biased in favour of Israel, his total disregard for Palestinian rights, and his provocative measures to transfer the US embassy to Jerusalem, pursue the Deal of the Century and support of Israeli annexation of the Jordan Valley and settlements in WB and East Jerusalem. The tension between the two sides was reflected through sanctions imposed by the Trump administration on the PA, including ending direct aid, closing down the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) offices in the US, and cutting US funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA).
The US bias in favour of Israel reached unprecedented levels in the history of US foreign policy, which became completely identical to the vision of the Israeli right regarding various facets of the Arab-Israeli conflict. The Deal of the Century peace plan and the annexation plan clearly embodied this bias and the full endorsement of the ideas of the Israeli right.
Many factors are likely to influence the position of the incoming administration of President-elect Joe Biden on issues related to Palestine, despite the traditional US bias favouring Israeli perspectives. Among these factors are:
1. The desire of the Democrats to return to the negotiation track, and their adoption of a less biased position on final status issues, within the boundaries of the US vision. The Democrats understand the difficulty of relaunching negotiations without overcoming the crisis in the relationship with the PA caused by Trump’s policies.
2. Unfriendly relations between Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing government, and the Democratic administration of former President Barack Obama, in which Joe Biden served as vice president. There are also predictions that John Kerry, US former secretary of state under Obama, may play a key role in the incoming Biden administration. Kerry does not enjoy warm relations with the Netanyahu government, and in his last speech days before the end of Obama’s second term, Kerry blamed the Israeli government for the failure of the negotiations. While it is true that Biden has sought to reduce tensions with the Israelis, his positions remain shaped by the vision of the Democratic Party for the Arab-Israeli conflict.
3. The attitudes of the US progressive faction, which some label as the progressive left, inside the Democratic party, as represented by the likes of Senator Bernie Sanders, the former rival of the more conservative Joe Biden during the Democratic primaries. Despite Sanders’ withdrawal from the primaries and endorsement of Joe Biden later, the progressive faction is seen as an influential force inside the Democratic Party and enjoys widespread support among young Democrats. Most of these progressive Democrats voted through mail-in ballots and played a key role in Biden’s victory. Despite Biden’s conservative inclinations, it is likely this progressive faction will shape his policies on many issues.
Although the gap between the progressives and conservatives is centred mainly on domestic issues, especially taxation, education, healthcare, immigration, trade, and the environment, foreign policy issues were also contested during the Democratic primaries in early 2020. The discussions focused on US policies, roles in the region, and troops deployed overseas. The progressives had opposed the invasion of Iraq, which was supported by Biden at the time, and have adopted pro-peace and anti-military intervention platforms.
4. The influence of the Muslim voting bloc during the US election, which clearly helped flip swing states for Biden. This bloc was not as influential in Obama’s case, and it is likely its weight will be factored in as a new variable for Biden.
5. Biden’s support for a nuclear deal with Iran: The president-elect was one of the staunchest supporters of the previous deal. Biden’s position is likely to antagonize the ruling Israeli right-wing faction, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE, three of whom supported Trump’s abrogation of US commitments under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), as they see Iran’s nuclear program as a threat.
6. Biden’s preoccupation with domestic and foreign challenges. One of the foremost domestic priorities for the new administration will be to address the polarization in the US caused by Trump’s policies, which have undermined the unity and cohesiveness of American society; as well as the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on healthcare and the economy in the US.
At the foreign level, the rivalry with China, seen by the US as its number one adversary, has intensified without bounds. While there is a bipartisan convergence on this issue, there is disagreement with regard of how to practically manage this rivalry. The Democrats are averse to escalation and confrontation with China, unlike the Trump administration, which has imposed economic tariffs on China and threatened to go further in its punitive measures. The Biden administration will also seek to repair relations with the European Union and international bodies, and address the tension caused by Trump’s policies in a multitude of issues.
7. Russia’s continued attempts to gain a role in the region’s issues, including the Palestine issue, and the US anxiety over this prospect in the light of the current tensions in US-PA relations.
The Expected Consequences of Biden’s Win
In light of the aforementioned policy determinants likely to shape the positions and behaviour of the Biden administration vis-à-vis the Palestine issue in the next phase, the following consequences of his victory in the US election and the transfer of power from the Republicans to the Democrats may be expected:
First: The Position on the PA and Hamas, and Implications for Reconciliation Efforts
It is likely the Biden administration would adopt policies close to those of the Democratic administration of Barack Obama, and seek to end the estrangement, de-escalate tensions, then resume relations with the PA. At a minimum, this will require diplomatic engagement, restoring US aid to the PA, and reopening the PLO’s representative offices in the US closed by the Trump administration. However, it is likely that the Biden administration will condition these measures on the PA’s return to the negotiations track.
It is yet unclear how the expected rapprochement between the Biden administration and the PA, and the administration’s trajectory towards reviving negotiations, would influence its position on Hamas and the PA’s own behaviour with regards to the reconciliation issue. Reconciliation has seen a breakthrough in recent months under the pressure of the Trump administration’s intransigence vis-à-vis the PA and the Palestine issue, its endorsement of the Deal of the Century and Israeli annexation, and its pressure on Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel, with the PA sensing the threat to itself and the Palestine issue as a result.
Regarding the position of the expected Biden administration on Hamas, it is likely to adopt the traditional stance of previous administrations, including the Trump and Obama administrations, summarized as follows:
• Continuing to officially deal with Hamas as a “Terrorist Organization” that uses violence to achieve its political aims, while allowing unofficial political contacts with it, as was the case under Obama.
• Considering the Hamas movement as a spoiler of the negotiations and the peace process, because of its adherence to armed resistance and refusal to recognize Israel.
• However, the flexibility shown by Hamas in its political charter, which reflects willingness to deal more pragmatically with political developments, may help encourage the Biden administration to test the possibility of politically influencing Hamas and to leverage the role of countries friendly to the Palestinian group; that do not oppose the peace process and are seeking to develop their relations with the US administration and enhance their regional role.
• Dealing with Hamas as part of the broader Islamic movement represented by the Muslim Brothers (MB) movement in the region. Consequently, the position of the Biden administration on this movement will shape its stance on dealing with Hamas, with some variations related to the specificities of the Palestine issue.
Regarding the position of the PA on pressing ahead or not with reconciliation with Hamas and holding elections, there are three possibilities:
1. Continuing reconciliation talks and proceeding with the elections.
2. Slowing down reconciliation talks until there is more visibility with regard to the negotiations track, and the trajectory of the new US administration with regard to the Palestine issue.
3. Backing away from the reconciliation track in light of the new developments, and the expiry of some factors that would have pushed towards ending the division and putting the Palestinian political house in order.
Among the key determinants expected to shape the PA’s position on reconciliation and elections are:
1. The position of the new US administration on improving relations with the PA, reconciliation, the Deal of the Century plan, and annexation.
2. Israeli actions on the ground especially on settlement and unilateral measures
3. The Egyptian position, which plays an influential role in the choices of the PA and reconciliation.
4. The normalization process with Israel and the conduct of normalizing countries.
5. The policy directions of key PA political and security leaders, which are influenced by their affiliations and future ambitions.
Despite its likely preoccupation with domestic issues, the Biden administration is likely to seek to overcome the crisis with the PA, and induce it back into the negotiating table, away from rapprochement with Hamas, unless it receives reassurances that it is possible to positively influence Hamas’s political position.
It is likely that the Netanyahu government would also avoid major provocative measures at the level of annexation and settlement, for two main reasons: First, to not embarrass Arab countries normalizing relations with Israel and encourage others to follow suit; and second, to avoid antagonizing the new US administration early on.
The Egyptian stance on the reconciliation issue is likely to be shaped by a number of considerations, led by: The desire to head off any potential Turkish or Qatari role in the reconciliation issue that would compete with the Egyptian role and its monopoly over the Palestine issue; the relatively tense relationship between Egypt and Hamas; and the stance of the new US administrations on the reconciliation issue. However, ultimately, the Egyptian leadership is unlikely to push in the direction of moving the current reconciliation efforts forward towards bearing results any time soon.
Regarding the normalization process, current indications suggest the countries that have normalized relations with Israel will enhance these relations, having overcome the possibility of a backlash. This will be a source of concern for the PA, which will be anxious of the prospect that those countries may bypass the Palestinian position.
In light of the above, the PA will likely not backdown from reconciliation talks, but it will not pursue them with enthusiasm either. The second possibility therefore, namely the slowing down of the reconciliation process until the positions of the new US administration and the prospect of returning to negotiations become clearer, is the most likely outcome. Indeed, the prospect of reconciliation with Hamas is an important bargaining chip in the hands of the PA at present, and not a source of pressure on the PA like before. Moreover, some prominent Palestinian leaders, such as Jibril al-Rajoub, are strongly in favour of continuing reconciliation with Hamas, seeing it as a strong boost to their presence in the PA power equation and the rivalry over succession of Mahmud ‘Abbas.
Second: The Relationship with the Netanyahu Government and the Israeli Right
Despite the strained relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu government, it is likely that the new Biden administration will avoid quickly descending into differences based on a number of considerations, such as:
1. The preoccupation of the new US administration with domestic issues and its aversion to dealing with political crises at the start of its term.
2. The desire of the new US administration to relaunch negotiations, which would require studying the prospects of that track, and encouraging the Israeli side to adopt positive positions.
3. The Netanyahu government’s awareness of the high costs of a confrontation with the US administration. In light of his previous experiences, Netanyahu has become more willing to adapt to the trajectory of US administrations, but without relinquishing his fundamental policies, hence encouraging him to maneuver and avoid confrontation.
The Netanyahu government’s need for the support of the new US administration to the normalization of relations with the Arab countries, even if this support remains limited to encouragement, rather than the pressure and blackmail pursued by the Trump administration.
Third: The Deal of the Century, Negotiations, and Normalization
The new US administration desires to launch meaningful negotiations that could lead to a political agreement based on the two-state solution, a formula adopted by previous US administrations. However, it understands clearly the size of the obstacles hindering this trajectory, in light of the hard-line positions of the Israeli right—which recently passed the Jewish Nation State Law, the major obstacles imposed by the Deal of the Century plan and the unilateral measures taken by the Trump administration.
While realizing the difficulty of overcoming these obstacles, the new US administration is also aware of the costs of continued political vacuum. This makes it likely that it will seek to launch a new political process, even though it may not quickly stake its bet on achieving a breakthrough.
Regarding the Deal of the Century and annexation plan, the Biden administration will most likely not abide by it, given the rejection of the PA and all Palestinian forces, and the difficulty of launching negotiations based on its clauses. This is while the Netanyahu government is likely to insist on its terms.
Regarding normalization, the Biden administration will likely continue to encourage more Arab countries to normalize relations with Israel, but without pressure or blackmail.
Fourth: The Impact of Biden’s Victory on the Roles of Regional Powers in the Palestine Issue
The US administration understands the importance of the Egyptian role in the Palestine issue. Furthermore, Egypt is Israel’s preferred regional actor in overseeing the Palestine issue and influencing the PA, given the convergence between Israel and Egypt on the issues of reconciliation, normalization, and the continuation of the Gaza Strip (GS) blockade. However, the negative positions expressed by Biden on the campaign trail vis-à-vis ‘Abdul-Fattah al-Sisi could cast a shadow on US-Egyptian relations. Consequently, the US administration may have another opinion regarding Egypt’s monopoly over managing the Palestine issue.
In light of the above, the following may be expected:
1. Given the many bargaining chips and influence it commands, Egypt is likely to continue to play a key role in influencing the Palestine issue, but its monopoly may not hold because of its hard-line positions vis-à-vis the PA and Hamas in recent months, its full investment in UAE pro-normalization policies, and the lack of clarity regarding its stance on the Deal of the Century and annexation plans. Biden’s harsh criticism of al-Sisi is an additional determinant, despite the realization that President Biden will be different from Candidate Biden, who could afford to propose unrealistic electoral slogans different from pragmatic realities.
2. There will be a bigger opportunity to regional actors other than Egypt to become involved in the Palestine issue, especially Qatar, which holds important cards given its good relations with Hamas and the PA. Israel also accepts some of Qatar’s roles that influenced Hamas and GS during Trump’s tenure, securing key breakthroughs such as upholding the truce between the two sides. The Biden administration could welcome the continuation if not the expansion of this Qatari role.
3. Jordan has an important opportunity to play a bigger role in the Palestine issue, if it initiates, ends its hesitation and reluctance, and lowers its sensitivity to the Egyptian position. Indeed, Jordan enjoys good relations with the Palestinian parties, and its position is consistent with those of the incoming US administration, nevertheless, it lacks the initiative shown by Qatar so far.
4. Turkey can be an important player in the Palestine issue in the next phase, if it manages to overcome tensions with Biden, who voiced strong criticism of the Turkish president earlier. For Turkey’s large regional weight, and growing desire to play an active regional role, makes it an important player that could shape the US position. Moreover, its strong ties to both the PA and Hamas are another important factor, as reflected by meetings held by Hamas and Fatah leaders in recent months in Turkey.
In return, there are Egyptian, Emirati, and Saudi reservations against a bigger Turkish role in the Palestine issue. In addition, Turkey’s relations with the Netanyahu government remain strained. Accordingly, Turkey could play a role in Palestinian reconciliation and attempt to fill the vacuum if Egypt’s role declines and retreats.
5. The Biden administration could return to the agreement with Iran regarding the nuclear issue. This bid has strong European support. Returning to accord with Iran, which would include lifting or easing economic sanctions, allowing Iran to sell oil, could strengthen Iran’s economy and reduce its hardship, which would in turn enhance its support for the Palestinian forces.
6. It is so far not clear how Biden’s win will influence the positions of Saudi Arabia and the UAE on the Palestine issue, the PA and other Palestinian forces. The two states may seek accord with the new administration, and try to persuade it of continuing the maximum pressure policy against Iran and its nuclear program. The two states will also seek to leverage their normalisation with Israel to improve relations with the Biden administration.
In light of the Biden administration’s expected position on the negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, and the lower odds of implementing the Deal of the Century and annexation plans, it is likely that Saudi Arabia and the UAE will seek to overcome their crisis with the PA. However, they are likely to continue dealing negatively with Hamas and the “political Islam” movement, and would try to persuade the Biden administration of adopting tough positions against them; promoting that they are supporters of “terrorisms,” who obstruct peace efforts.
In light of the above predictions, the following recommendations may be made:
1. Sustaining reconciliation efforts with Fatah, with more investment in making them a success, adopting flexible positions and implementing practical programs to overcome obstacles.
2. Urging the new US administration to respect the will of the Palestinians and their right to self-determination and independence.
3. Urging the new US administration to adopt constructive, reasonable and balanced policies on the issues of the region, which would calm tensions, make the region more stable, promote the respect of human rights and the respect of the will of the region’s peoples to govern themselves, make their own decisions, and benefit from their own wealth and resources.
4. Opening channels of communication with US progressive figures who support Palestinian rights.
* Al-Zaytouna Centre thanks Mr. ‘Atef al-Joulani for authoring the original text upon which this strategic assessment was based.