“In my 34-year career,” presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden told the Jewish weekly magazine, The Forward, in 2007, “I have never wavered from the notion that the only time progress has ever been made in the Middle East is when the Arab nations have known that there is no daylight between us and Israel. So the idea of being the ‘honest broker’ is not I think, like some of my democratic colleagues call for, is not the answer.”
There is no reason to think Biden is any more inclined toward fairness between Israel and the Palestinians today than he was back then. He maintains his self-proclaimed “Zionist” identity, and his rhetoric continues to reflect a deep bias in favor of Israel. But if Biden has remained in place, United States policy has lurched far in favor of extreme elements in Israel. The Trump administration has greenlit unilateral Israeli annexation in the West Bank, while abandoning any pretense of supporting even the minimal goal of a truncated Palestinian state, dependent on Israel, as the now-abandoned Oslo peace process envisioned.
In that sense, Biden represents a substantive alternative to Trump. The current administration has shattered the fragile diplomatic relationship with the Palestinians and made it politically impossible for even the overly accommodating Mahmoud Abbas to negotiate with Israel. It has broken the long-standing support system for the Palestinian people while placing more obstacles than ever in the way of Palestinians’ ability to support themselves.
When Barack Obama — and his vice president, Joe Biden — left office, Palestinians were worse off than they had ever been before. The same could be said for every administration since George H.W. Bush. But Trump has magnified the misery, despair, and oppression in a way his predecessors could not have dreamed of.
As with many other issues, Biden’s views are quite different from those of many of the voters he hopes to win over. But also like other issues, Biden’s views are even more different from Trump’s and, if Biden is unlikely to be moved substantially in a more progressive direction, he is still susceptible to persuasion by advocates for Palestinian rights where Trump is not.
If that sounds like faint praise, it is, but this is the choice we have, barring unexpected developments. No matter how negatively one views Biden, the devastation a second Trump term could cause for the Palestinian people is almost unimaginable. Trump would be free of electoral constraints and would feel vindicated in all his actions. Worse, he’d know that even a Republican successor would be unlikely to maintain his extreme policies, and he’ll do everything he can to get as much done in areas important to his base — like Israeli sovereignty over all of the West Bank — as will be possible in the four years he has.
There is no hope that Palestinian rights can be advanced during a Trump presidency. That said, it is crucial that we go into a possible Biden presidency with eyes wide open and ready to press hard for the sort of policies that have always been crucial and that four years of Trump’s recklessness have only made more important.
Biden and annexation
Biden offers little hope for preventing, or reversing, unilateral Israeli annexation of parts of the West Bank. Unlike most of the rest of the Democratic field in the recent primary, he is steadfast in his refusal to use U.S. aid to Israel as a lever to persuade Israel against annexation. Biden has explicitly cautioned Israel against annexation, and in a statement last week, he urged Israel not to “take actions that make a two-state solution impossible.” But these statements strongly imply that Biden continues to eschew any material pressure on Israel whatsoever. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has made a career of calling such American bluffs, and he will certainly do so again.
But even if Biden has not changed since leaving the White House in 2017, the politics have. Biden was always seen as close to the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, and more aloof from the liberal pro-Israel group, J Street. But this year, J Street has, for the first time in their history, endorsed a candidate for president, and Biden, to the surprise of some, accepted their endorsement.
More telling was a letter sent to the Democratic National Committee by 30 former national security officials, many of them veterans of the Obama administration, calling on the DNC to include an explicit statement of support for Palestinian rights, “including self-determination, security and freedom,” in its platform. The letter unsurprisingly failed to impress long-time activists for Palestinian rights, but it was a dramatic step forward for mainstream Democratic foreign policy figures.
Another letter, from a coalition of more than 50 progressive organizations, called for Biden to, among other demands, commit to “ending Israel’s military occupation; disbanding Israel’s illegal settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem; ending the Israeli military blockade of Gaza.” The demands were clearly tailored to be farther than Biden is likely to go, but still well within the mainstream of the Democratic party. This is a telling point.
No one believes for a moment that any plea for mercy, let alone a call for justice, for the Palestinians will be met with anything but mockery by the Trump administration. But it is possible to move Biden.
Biden and Bernie Sanders: an uneasy partnership
On Wednesday, the Biden and Bernie Sanders campaigns announced the joint formation of six task forces to tackle a variety of issues. While one devoted to climate change was the closest any of the committees came to foreign policy, there have already been signs that the two campaigns have been working together on that as well.
“It’s clear there’s a new progressive foreign policy discussion happening,” Sanders’ foreign policy advisor Matt Duss told Foreign Policy in late April. “That’s something that, now as the nominee and hopefully as president, Biden will need to engage with, and I’m confident he and his team will. It’s not to say he will change his views overnight, certainly not, but at least recognition that this is a part of the new progressive coalition, a broader set of organizations and ideas about foreign policy.”
That none of the new task forces deal directly with foreign policy is also unfortunately telling. Biden understands that defeating Trump is going to center on domestic issues that are of immediate concern to Americans, such as the economy, the pandemic, and climate change. Still, Duss is correct in pointing out that Biden must reckon with a more progressive approach to foreign policy, even in Israel, an area where he may have some personal investment, but where the government has shifted to such an extreme position that even someone as supportive as Biden will have to take action if he hopes to salvage the possibility of diplomacy.
There is no hope of Trump coming to that realization. Biden, though he may not be the candidate progressives want or need, is the only alternative they’ve got.