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How Biden can reset a course toward peace on his visit to Israel

The US president should legitimize the core narratives of each side and reiterate that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a conflict of dueling nationalities
US President Joe Biden addresses the nation at the White House in Washington, DC on June 24, 2022. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP)
US President Joe Biden addresses the nation at the White House in Washington, DC on June 24, 2022. (Photo by Mandel NGAN / AFP)

When US President Joe Biden lands at Ben Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, he will be conducting one of the most unusual trips to Israel ever made by an American president. Biden is not launching a major diplomatic initiative, is not making any far-reaching announcements, is not bringing any significant largesse to either the Israelis or the Palestinians, and the stops in Jerusalem and Bethlehem are only a prelude to the more pressing stop days later in Riyadh. Even if Biden did have an expansive agenda, it would be undermined by the fact that he will be meeting with a transitional Israeli government led by Interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid that does not have the authority to enact significant policy changes in the period between the fall of the government at the end of June and Israeli elections in November. In a variety of ways, Biden’s trip looks anticlimactic before he even boards Air Force One.

Yet despite the variables that will combine to make Biden’s visit less impactful than it could be, there is one critical thing that Biden should do that can reset the trajectory of Israeli-Palestinian relations and the way in which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is viewed. Rather than do what US presidents who have delved into the Israeli-Palestinian morass have done for decades, fixating on specific negotiated arrangements and tangible confidence-building measures in search of the ever-elusive key that will unlock a permanent status agreement between the parties, Biden should set that aside. The best thing that Biden can do – something that does not involve coordinating with and between the two sides or pressing them to deal with each other – is to support and legitimize the core narratives of each side, and to reiterate that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is one of dueling nationalities.

Both Israeli and Palestinian nationalism are under assault from different corners. Despite having scaled military, economic, and cultural heights that outstrip Israel’s founders’ most ambitious dreams, while seeing the unprecedented fall of barriers to Israel’s acceptance across the region, Zionism as an idea is facing threats that are reminiscent of a time decades past. While nationalism of any variety has become more suspect on the left, in Israel’s case there is the added charge that political Zionism – the right of Jews to establish a Jewish state in their historic homeland – is fundamentally illegitimate. Critiques of Israel have steadily moved from focusing on Israel’s actions, including its 55-year-long military occupation of the West Bank and discrimination against the state’s Arab citizens, to focusing on Israel’s very nature. Human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have in the past two years accused Israel of apartheid, crucially making the case that the charge does not revolve solely around occupation but around Israeli efforts to create and maintain itself as a Jewish state.

Palestinian nationalism is going through a downturn of its own. Israel’s most recent prime minister, Naftali Bennett, long decried Palestinian statehood and during his tenure was unwilling to carry out any policies that even hinted at a political process with the Palestinians or nodded toward limited Palestinian sovereignty. Many Israelis have moved from setting security guarantees with any future Palestinian state as their red line to Palestinian statehood itself as their red line. It is now routine in Israeli political discourse to talk about permanent autonomy for Palestinians.

The Texas Republican Party adopted a platform last month that supports the prohibition of a Palestinian state within Israel’s historical borders, and despite President George W. Bush being the first US president to support Palestinian statehood, national Republicans have mostly abandoned that position. Advocates for the Palestinian cause in the US have largely moved on as well, embracing a rights-based discourse rather than a nationalism discourse and positing that the only just solution is a single bi-national state. The result is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, one of the enduring struggles between two national groups, has been slowly transformed in public perception into something else.

Biden has an opportunity to give Israeli and Palestinian nationalism a much-needed boost while reorienting the way in which the conflict is perceived. While on the ground in Jerusalem, Biden should stress in public comments that the US supports Zionism and Israel as a Jewish state, and supports Palestinian nationalism and the future creation of a Palestinian state. He should state that it is the US view that Israelis and Palestinians will only achieve a lasting peace when their respective national aspirations are fulfilled, and that the enduring success of each depends on the enduring success of the other. While continuing to adhere to the administration’s mantra of equal measures of security, prosperity, and dignity for Israelis and Palestinians, it is critical that Biden acknowledge the importance of these things in the context of respecting the national struggles of Israelis and Palestinians as well. Increasingly, it is the failure to recognize that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a national one that is making resolving it even harder.

Israelis and Palestinians have strong national identities, and Zionism and Palestinian nationalism are movements to have those identities recognized and legitimated, culminating in national sovereignty. Turning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into one in which nationalism is excised from the picture misunderstands the nature of what is taking place, misunderstands what Israelis and Palestinians have been fundamentally seeking for so long, creates a framework that attempts to wish away the difficult task of prodding both sides to understand and acknowledge the other’s narrative, and crucially leads to policy prescriptions that will result in a dead end. Biden is not in a position to talk about borders, security arrangements, or the administration of Jerusalem, but he can do what is needed for this moment, which is to remind everyone what the conflict is truly about and what any solution must take into account.

Read more articles like this on Israel Policy Exchange, Israel Policy Forum’s outlet for expert commentary and analysis on US-Israel relations, Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy, Israeli politics and society, and the regional politics of the Middle East.

 

About the Author
Michael Koplow is the policy director of the Israel Policy Forum.
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