Can Biden transform a tragedy into an opportunity?

President Biden has declared many times that he is a Zionist even though he is not Jewish. His support for Israel following the brutal terrorist attack by Hamas that touched every soul in Israel with shock and trauma, is no less than momentous. He now faces a historic opportunity to save Israel from a bloody bi-national reality, in which it would no longer be the democratic state of the Jewish People according to the Zionist vision.

The crimes against humanity committed by Hamas, the indiscriminate slaughter and massacre of civilians, women and men, elderly, youngsters, children and infants, are the most horrible tragedy that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict has produced. But even in times of catastrophe there is room for opportunity. This was one lesson from the 1973 Yom Kippur War where the national trauma eventually led to a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, the largest and strongest Arab country in the world and Israel’s greatest enemy at the time.

It is clear that responding by force to the attack is necessary. However, it is time to understand that the Palestinian issue, including the reign of terror of the Hamas organization in the Gaza Strip, will not be solved by military means only. There is indeed a need to respond with military force to the atrocious acts against thousands of innocent civilians, but as the US learned in Iraq, Afghanistan and Vietnam, even the strongest military in the world cannot solve such challenges with military measures alone.

The opportunity for President Biden to lead a major change of course in the Middle East arises, among other things, in light of the liberal awakening of a protest movement in Israel to protect and preserve its democracy, a direct response to the move of Netanyahu’s government to bring about a “regime coup” that his supporters call ” judicial reform”. The general failure of Netanyahu and his government to function during the crisis of the Hamas attack and its horrifying consequences, is an opportunity to focus as well on the no less significant threat posed to Israel’s democracy by its continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories.

The Biden administration can and should initiate an international move towards a political horizon that will raise the Palestinian issue to the Israeli public agenda once again, instills hope and faith among moderate Palestinians, and strengthen supporters of a two-state diplomatic solution. According to all polls in Israel and also among the Palestinian population, there is a liberal majority when given a political horizon, while Hamas represents less than 30 percent of the Palestinian people. Successful diplomacy will significantly weaken Hamas and its appeal among Palestinians.

Biden’s opportunity to dramatically change the arena of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict arises also in the context of the aspiration for a US-Saudi Arabia defense alliance and the normalization of Israel-Saudi relations. Leaks from talks between Americans and Saudis, and between Palestinians and Saudis, suggest that they are far from creating a significant political horizon for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution. Promises by Netanyahu are worth nothing as has been proven time and again.

The first response of the Biden Administration rightly focused on diplomatic and military support for Israel. Yet the US can in parallel act now diplomatically by initiating an international effort for a long-term solution. It should mobilize the regional and international arena and the UN Security Council, recognize a Palestinian state based on the 2002 Saudi Arab Peace Initiative for an Israeli-Palestinian two-state solution, and demand Palestinian elections that will provide one legitimate leadership representing both Gaza and the West Bank for negotiations.

The international support for this venture is guaranteed. Except for the governments of Israel, Iran, and Hamas in Gaza, there is an overwhelming consensus in the international community for the establishment of a Palestinian state, and Palestine can easily be accepted as a full member of the UN if the US refrains from vetoing it in the Security Council.

Such an initiative could also make it clear that the international community will offer diplomatic and economic support to any government in Israel and Palestine that recognizes the “Arab initiative” as the basis for negotiations, and thus strengthen liberal leadership in both countries.

Such a proposal would probably not receive the support of Republican politicians if not made in collaboration with Israel’s current government, which is unlikely. Netanyahu’s promises to safeguard the future of the two-state solution, including his 2009 Bar Ilan speech, all ended up as nothing more than lip service. For years Netanyahu has led a policy to keep Hamas stronger than the Palestinian Authority, in order to have an excuse for not making compromises to the Palestinians. Although Saudi Arabia might have to settle for less than a full defense alliance with the US and the ability to enrich uranium, which requires 2/3 support in Congress, reviving the “Arab initiative” (which started as a “Saudi Initiative”) might boost its international legitimacy and regional leadership.

As far as the United States is concerned – this is a “low-hanging fruit”. The US wants to mobilize the countries of the region that export energy and to exert indirect pressure against Russia, because of the damage to the global economy due to the increase of oil prices. The US has an opportunity here to use proactive diplomacy to promote global interests and to arrive at an international initiative to turn the two-state solution into a realistic feasibility, together with an Arab, European and all-the-rest consensus.  American leadership is the best way to prevent Russia and China from taking advantage of the vacuum created by the US’s justified withdrawal from the “boots on the ground” approach of the Bush Administration.

Despite the Biden administration repeating its clear and principled position in favor of a two-state solution, it chose in its first three years to engage only in order to prevent crisis in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The reasons for this were a variety of other priorities on the US international and intra-American agenda, as well as a lack of leverage with Netanyahu and Abbas. Now that a catastrophe has occurred so tragically, it is time to take strategic action.

Despite the administration’s relative success in the recent midterm elections, Biden lost the majority in the House of Representatives, and hence the power to pass significant legislation in Congress.  Yet, Biden might create a legacy before the 2024 presidential election in foreign policy, where he is much less dependent on lawmakers. He should learn from his success in strengthening NATO and Ukraine against Russia that diplomacy is the route to a successful legacy.

In the domestic arena, Biden can expect overwhelming support from the Democratic Party.  Trumpist-populists will attack Biden anyway, but the Democratic Party is now riper than ever to support a move on the Palestinian issue. For many years it was dominated by forces in the American Jewish community that supported the status quo of Israel’s occupation in the Palestinian territories. The new generation of Democratic legislators have come to realize that there are no military solutions to the issues that Israel is facing, and that arriving at a two-state solution is at its own best interest. This is due to demographic changes in the base of the Democratic party and a generational change in the Jewish community. No less significant is the growth of Jewish organizations that support Israel, democracy and peace, and believe in the power of courageous diplomacy to promote both Israeli and US interests. I am proud to work for such an organization.

President Biden has a unique opportunity to be remembered in history as the one who saved the Zionist vision of liberty, justice, peace, security, and Israel’s fragile democracy. He could continue the legacies of others before him – Truman who recognized the State of Israel, Carter who led Israel to peace with Egypt, and Clinton who played a role in the process that led to an Israeli Jordanian peace treaty.

Biden described the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel as an act of sheer evil and an atrocity on an appalling scale. His empathy for the feelings of anger, pain and sense of hopelessness in the throes of such a “human tragedy” has, more than ever before, earned him the trust of Israelis as a great friend of Israel. He can now rise to the occasion and leverage this trust by a strategic move that will create opportunity out of the catastrophe.

About the Author
Nadav Tamir is the executive director of J Street Israel, a member of the board of the Mitvim think-tank, adviser for international affairs at the Peres Center for Peace and Innovation, and member of the steering committee of the Geneva Initiative. He was an adviser of President Shimon Peres and served in the Israel embassy in Washington and as consul general to New England.
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