Judging from the few public statements made so far and what is known about his appointees, the Biden Administration will take the same stance toward Israel and the Palestinians as the last Democratic administration, led by Barack Obama.
That means that it will return to the idea of establishing a Palestinian state in Judea and Samaria more or less on the pre-1967 lines. It will go back to financing the Palestinian Authority, which will find a way to pay terrorists and support their families while pretending not to, in order to circumvent the Taylor Force Act which requires the US to deduct such payments from aid to the PA. The administration will likely close its eyes to the subterfuge. It will go back to funding UNRWA, the agency that supports the exponential growth of a stateless population made up of the descendants of Arab refugees from the 1948 war, despite the fact that it exists to perpetuate the problem posed by this population, not to solve it.
I believe that it will return to the principle that the main reason the conflict has not ended is that Israel has not made enough concessions to the Palestinians, and that the way to end it is to pressure Israel to give in to Palestinian demands: for Jew-free land, for sovereignty without restrictions, for eastern Jerusalem, and perhaps even for the “return” of the refugee descendants. Although not directly part of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will probably reduce pressure on Iran and possibly even return to the JCPOA, the nuclear deal.
It’s too early to tell if it will also adopt the open hostility to the Jewish state that characterized Obama’s reign. That will depend on who influences Biden, both among his official advisors as well as the numerous think tanks, lobbies, and pressure groups that have an interest in the conflict – including the one operated by Barack Obama himself.
I suspect that the administration will have its hands full with other matters and so will not immediately launch a new “peace” effort. But one never knows. Sometimes rationality goes out the window when the subject turns to the Jews and their state.
Although nothing can be done with those who take a position because they see it as a step in the direction of the ultimate elimination of our state, there are still “people of good faith” who believe that the Land for Peace paradigm that inspired the Oslo Accords does provide a path to ending the conflict. If the new administration is dominated by the latter type of people, there is hope that correcting their fundamental misapprehensions might lead to a more productive policy.
These misapprehensions are spelled out persuasively in a recent book, The War of Return, How Western Indulgence of the Palestinian Dream has Obstructed the Path to Peace, by Adi Schwartz and Einat Wilf (All Points Books, 2020). Schwartz and Wilf fall on the left of the Israeli political spectrum (Wilf was a Member of the Knesset for the Labor Party), and they still favor a two-state solution. But unlike most of their comrades, they have listened to the Palestinians, and understand their actual concerns and objectives. In their book, they explain why the traditional approach has failed and propose the initial steps that are necessary for any settlement of the conflict.
All previous Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations have miscarried because Israelis and Western interlocutors have failed to realize the paramount importance of one issue – the “right of return” demanded by the Palestinians. This is possible because they have systematically misunderstood the language – whether English or Arabic – used by the Palestinians. The “constructive ambiguity” that often characterizes diplomatic language and allows parties that don’t quite agree with each other to nevertheless sign agreements has made it possible for the same words to have diametrically opposed meanings when uttered by Westerners or Palestinians.
The prime example of this is the phrase “a just solution to the refugee problem.” To an Israeli or Westerner, this can include the normalization of the refugees* in their countries of residence, their emigration to other countries, or their resettlement in a Palestinian state, should one be created. This has been the approach taken by the international community to the numerous refugee populations, including Germans living in Eastern Europe after WWII, Holocaust survivors, Jews who were forced out of Arab countries after 1948, and so on. But the Palestinian position is that there is only one “just solution”: anyone with refugee status has the inalienable right to “return” to his “home” in Israel if he wishes to do so, or to receive compensation if he prefers. And that is what this phrase means when they use it.
Naturally, given the numbers of Arabs who claim this “right,” such a mass return would change Israel into an Arab-majority state, even assuming Jews were prepared to leave their homes and peacefully give them to their “rightful owners.” The absurdity of the demand is evident. Yet Yasser Arafat walked away from Camp David precisely because Israel would not agree to it.
Another phrase whose ambiguity has prevented agreement is “two-state solution.” Virtually every Israeli that favors this understands it as “two states for two peoples.” But the Palestinians want one totally Jew-free Palestinian state, and one state in which the right of return for Arab refugees has been implemented (and which theoretically might contain Jews, at least for a while). They have never accepted the idea of any Jewish sovereignty between the river and the sea, and hence reject the formulation “two states for two peoples.”
Schwartz and Wilf explain that Western and Israeli negotiators have always assumed – perhaps because the demand is so extreme – that the right of return was a bargaining chip that the Palestinians would cash in for the currency of borders, the removal of settlements, or rights in Jerusalem. But they were wrong. The demand for “return” is the essence of the Palestinian movement.
Palestinian children learn about it, down to the particular locations to which each has the “right” to return, in UNRWA schools where they are taught by Palestinian teachers (99% of UNRWA’s employees are Palestinians). Someday, they are told over and over, they will return. Guaranteed.
Everything UNRWA does is geared toward increasing this population of angry people, convinced that a massive injustice has been done to them, and that the only solution will be for them to return, and through this return, wipe the Jews from the face of the land they are convinced we stole from them.
UNRWA was created after the 1948 war with the intention of providing temporary assistance to the refugees until they could be resettled and normalized the way all other groups of refugees had been. But the only country that cooperated was Jordan, which gave the Palestinians citizenship and allowed them to integrate into their own populations. In Lebanon there were especially harsh restrictions and poor conditions. Little by little, the Arab nations changed the temporary UNRWA into a permanent tool to mold a refugee army that they hoped would ultimately do what their conventional armies could not: eliminate the Jewish state.
Today UNRWA is the main obstacle to solving the refugee problem. But it need not be. Schwartz and Wilf provide a relatively detailed, step by step program for phasing out UNRWA in the various places that it operates, and providing solutions for the refugees from the host countries and other agencies. For example, in the Palestinian Authority areas, they propose shifting both the responsibility for the refugees, and the money that supports UNRWA, to the PA. Former refugees would study in PA schools, go to PA health clinics, and so on. There are similar programs for Gaza, Syria, and Lebanon where the remaining refugee “camps” (today mostly neighborhoods on the outskirts of cities) are located.
Real peace can only be achieved when the consciousness of the Palestinians changes and they understand that the dream of return will not be realized. This would be a long and difficult process that could only begin with the elimination of UNRWA. But it has to start before it can finish. It will require cooperation of all of the Western donor countries that have been supporting UNRWA. Perhaps the fact that from a financial standpoint UNRWA will soon be unsustainable (after all, the number of “refugees” is growing exponentially) will encourage them to cooperate.
In the short term, it’s essential that everyone involved in relations between Israel and the Palestinians understand the real issues that underlie the conflict. And it would be a good thing if all parties could agree to use words the same way. Schwartz and Wilf say that “constructive ambiguity” should be replaced by “constructive specificity.” If the European Union, for example, believes that the State of Israel should be replaced by a Palestinian state, it should say so. Otherwise, it should unambiguously oppose a right of return, and work to dismantle UNRWA as quickly as is practical.
Back to the incoming Biden Administration. I hope it will resist the attempts of the anti-Israel Left to revive the hostility of the Obama days, and instead choose to be a force for real peace.
To that end, I will be sending Joe Biden a copy of this book, with a suggestion that he read it and pass it around among his foreign policy team.
*From here on, I use the word “refugees” by itself, although it refers to those descendants of the approximately 550-700,000 original refugees who have been granted this status by UNRWA. There are more than 5 million of them today, and the number grows every day. No such refugee status has been granted to any other population; the UNHCR agency which takes care of all non-Palestinian refugees, grants refugee status to those individuals who cannot return to their country of origin due to well-founded fear of persecution (see the full definition here), and to their children. Unlike UNRWA’s refugee status, it is not hereditary.