A year from President Joe Biden’s election victory, the Palestinian Authority is showing signs of adopting more sober, realistic expectations from his administration.
One clear example is the understanding in Ramallah that the U.S. will not return its embassy to Tel Aviv from Jerusalem, and that the move to Israel’s capital is a fait accompli. Biden can’t simply turn the clock back. In addition, the P.A. also appears to be coming to terms with the limitations of what Israel’s fragile coalition government can do in the Palestinian arena.
Despite the lack of any significant diplomatic-political developments on the Palestinian front, no new major crisis has developed in relations between the P.A. and Israel, or the United States. That’s because Ramallah now anticipates a freeze in any diplomatic progress.
This was far from being inevitable. Following Donald Trump’s failure to gain re-election, the P.A. and its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, initially expected new American trends and gestures towards the Palestinians, characterized by support and more active American attention to the Palestinian problem.
Those expectations were accompanied by hopes that the U.S. would lead attempts to reignite diplomatic talks between the P.A. and Israel over a peace settlement after almost a decade of stalled talks.
Today, however, the Palestinian leadership is aware that current conditions simply do not allow for such developments. Israel’s unusual coalition composition – in which right-wing and left-wing parties make up the government – means that policy changes on the Palestinian issue are practically impossible. In the U.S., the Biden administration is preoccupied with rebuilding the American economy, ending the pandemic and dealing with China.
It is now clear to the P.A. that chances of any diplomatic breakthrough are slim to none.
This did not stop it from sending a detailed document to Washington containing a list of 30 concrete suggested steps to take in the Palestinian arena. These include consolidating the P.A.’s rule in the West Bank, strengthening the Palestinian economy and raising the standard of living for West Bank Palestinians.
The rational for sending such a document is that the American administration can promote some of those recommendations quietly and discreetly. Specific steps listed in the document include increasing the number of permits for Palestinians to work in Israel, facilitating more family unifications of Palestinians and Israeli Arabs, and enabling Palestinian construction in Area C of the West Bank.
Despite the aspirations detailed in the list, the overall assessment in Ramallah is that declarations on the Palestinian issue in Washington are little more than lip service.
This attitude found expression in a PLO Executive Committee meeting chaired by Abbas on Oct. 19. The committee assessed relations with the U.S. after nine months of the Biden administration being in power, and noted the slow-motion political-diplomatic activity regarding Washington’s Palestinian policies and the economic hardships faced by the P.A.
Still, the low expectations from the Biden administration can be seen in a different light when compared to Ramallah’s experience of four years of the Trump administration, which the Palestinians viewed as nothing short of a nightmare.
During that time, the United States recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital; moved its ambassador to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv; froze annual financial support to the P.A.; and ceased aid to United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA). The United States shuttered the PLO Office in Washington and sent its PLO ambassador packing. It also stopped financial assistance to the P.A.’s security forces.
All of these steps were, however, overshadowed by Trump’s Mideast peace plan, which paved the way for significant Israeli annexation of the parts of the West Bank and buried the idea of a peace agreement between Israel and the PLO based on the 1967 borders, which is the only concept that the P.A. supports.
When Biden dismissed that, sighs of relief in Ramallah could be heard loud and clear. But such relief quickly gave way to a realization that American activity to renew the political process between Israel and the Palestinians would be slow and sporadic.
Still, Washington restarted funding programs to the P.A. and UNRWA, and the Palestinians were clearly glad that Biden had won, despite the limitations that have come to light since his election victory.
This satisfaction, however, is intermixed with sober, limited expectations after hopes that the U.S. would take a stronger stand on Israeli settlement construction were left unanswered.
When Biden said during his U.N. General Assembly speech on Sept. 21 that the two-state solution cannot be realized at this time, America’s lack of any rush to invest resources in new peace talks became more apparent than ever.
Biden is busy with dealing with the aftermath of the coronavirus pandemic and kick-starting the American economy. His administration has no plans under the current conditions to allocate attention to the effort to reach new Israeli-Palestinian political agreements.
The administration’s decision to not appoint a permanent representative for Israel and Palestinian affairs is another sign of the low priority that Washington assigns to this issue. Instead, it makes do with sending Hady Amr, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for Israeli and Palestinian affairs, to the region on visits.
According to media reports, Israeli sources who met Amr on his visit in mid-July heard concerns from Washington about the P.A.’s economic situation and pressure on Israel to assist Ramallah to avoid a cashflow crisis. This request was answered by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, who approved a $500 million loan to the P.A. based on tax-collection funds that Israel transfers to Ramallah (Israel has withheld some of this money over the P.A.’s practice of paying salaries to security prisoners and families of terrorists). In addition, Amr discussed ways to assist Gaza’s humanitarian situation following the May armed conflict between Hamas and Israel.
During his meeting with P.A. Prime Minister Muhammad Shtayah, Amr called for tighter relations between Washington and Ramallah, and for Israel to facilitate Gazan reconstruction efforts. UNRWA announced a new cooperation agreement with the United States during the visit, according to which the agency will receive $136 million, in addition to the $150 million it already received from Washington, and a payment of $33 million sent in May. Still, this assistance likely represents the limits of what the Biden administration plans to do in the region for now.
Overall, the Palestinians have adopted a wait-and-see approach, and are patiently biding their time to see whether the Biden administration will provide them with more significant gains further down the road.
IDF Col. David Hacham (Ret.) is a former adviser on Arab affairs to seven Israeli Ministers of Defense.