Susie Becher

Mr. President, please do no harm!

President Joe Biden arrives at Ben-Gurion airport on July 13, 2022, on his first official visit to Israel (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)
President Joe Biden arrives at Ben-Gurion airport on July 13, 2022, on his first official visit to Israel (Sraya Diamant/Flash90)

Having shied away from any attempt to achieve peace between the Israelis and the Palestinians, Joe Biden is now opting for a dubious deal with Netanyahu and MBS as part of his face-off with China and his desire to control the global oil market and boost his race for reelection.

Before he took office, at the height of his election campaign when the Democrats were counting every prospective voter, it was already clear that Joe Biden had no intention of trying to win anyone over by committing himself to engage with the Israelis and Palestinians toward the achievement of a peace agreement. At best, there were hopes that he would overturn the destructive decisions made during the Trump years. Indeed, the Biden administration has invested millions in UNRWA and is boosting USAID, but expectations that it would reopen the PLO office in Washington or the US Consulate in Jerusalem turned out to be ill-founded.

Even though little was expected of Biden, he has still managed to disappoint. The US Embassy in Jerusalem is fully functioning, with no restrictions on activities that would demonstrate US opposition to Israel’s annexation of East Jerusalem. Any hope that the United States would recover its role of honest broker was dashed when Biden landed in Israel in July 2022 and declared himself a Zionist who had returned home. Equally disturbing was the State Department’s announcement in June 2023 that it is not reinstating the Hansell Memorandum of 1978, which found that settlement in the occupied territories “is inconsistent with international law.” The memo was “disavowed” by Secretary Pompeo in November 2019 as yet another gift to Prime Minister Netanyahu. At the time, it was met with a letter from 100 Democratic House members who said that Pompeo’s announcement “severely damaged prospects for peace and endangered the security of America, Israel, and the Palestinian people.” The Biden administration’s failure to revert to the position that the settlements are illegal gives its protests against settlement expansion a rather hollow ring.

Despite his determination to keep his distance from Israel-Palestine affairs, the messianic, ultra-right Israeli coalition that was formed following the October elections challenged Biden in a way that he couldn’t ignore. The “legalization” of outposts, military operations in Gaza and Jenin, the repeal of the Disengagement Law, expansive settlement construction plans – all of these were met with the usual language that the United States is concerned (well, perhaps with the addition of the adverb “deeply”) for the future of the two-state solution. But when the government ploughed ahead with its judicial overhaul and with hundreds of thousands of Israelis taking to the streets, with world leaders as well as prominent members of his own party warning that Israel is abandoning the fundamental principles of democracy, and with concerns about Israel’s deterrent capability rising, Biden had to up his game. In an interview to CNN on July 9, he didn’t mince his words when describing the Netanyahu government as “the most extreme government…since the days of Golda Meir.” He also shut down Netanyahu’s attempts to play down the tension between the two by using New York Times columnist Tom Friedman to convey his displeasure in no uncertain terms.

When Netanyahu went ahead with the vote on the reasonableness law despite Biden’s warnings, there was reason to believe that the president would take off the gloves. Instead, the surprising news broke that negotiations on a trilateral deal between the United States, Saudi Arabia, and Israel have been dusted off and are moving into high gear. Joe Biden — the man who declared that safeguarding universal values would be the hallmark of his administration, the man who pledged to make Saudi Arabia a pariah and said that the country had no redeeming social value — is preparing to assist the Saudis in setting up a civilian nuclear program and to sell them advanced fighter aircraft, on the one hand, while extricating Netanyahu from his domestic troubles by handing him the coveted normalization between Israel and one of the leaders of the Muslim world on the other.

It is astounding to view this deal against the background of Biden’s timidity when it came to launching any initiative to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict, which has taken so many lives and which continues to leave millions of Palestinians stateless and powerless under the yoke of the Israeli occupation. True, the risks would have been substantial, but the benefits of success on the individual, national, regional, and global levels would have been boundless and the moral merits immeasurable. Instead, Biden is opting for a dubious deal with two shady characters as part of his face-off with China and his desire to control the global oil market and boost his race for reelection.

Let no one be fooled by the reports that any such deal would include significant concessions to the Palestinians. Both Biden and Mohammed bin Salman have an obvious interest in showing that they are not abandoning the Palestinians, but “show” is the operable word here. There are no promises, no economic perks, no land transfers, no air or seaports, not a partial measure of any kind that will not constitute the nail in the coffin of the Palestinians’ legitimate struggle for self-determination. That is because whatever bone is thrown to them will mark the last of Israel’s compromises and the cementing of its hold on the occupied territories. The lesson that Netanyahu took away from the Abraham Accords – that Israel can achieve normalization with the Arab world without making peace with the Palestinians – will be taken as gospel, while the Palestinians’ conclusion that the Arab states are ready to sell them out if the price is right will become irrefutable.

And so we come back to President Biden and his initial inclination to steer clear of the Middle East quagmire. Shortly after his election, I published an article in the Palestine-Israel Journal in which I argued that the United States cannot afford the luxury of “conflict management,” and I called on Biden to take bold moves such as endorsing UNSC Resolution 2334, which addresses the illegality of the settlements, and recognizing the State of Palestine prior to negotiations. My fear at the time was that the United States would leave us to our own devices. That fear has now morphed into a fear that it will get involved in the wrong arena with the wrong players, leading to the wrong outcome. Instead of seeing Palestinians traveling freely and safely around the region, they will remain imprisoned by the occupation while Israelis will be taking selfies in front of Jeddah’s Red Sea Mall.

Therefore, my appeal to the president has changed from a call for action to the call primum non nocere (first do no harm.) Mr. President, if you’re unwilling to take steps to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, please don’t make things worse. Don’t give Israel’s fascist coalition a prize that will boost its standing and possibly win it another term. Don’t give the tyrannical Saudi crown prince a prize that will defile the memory of Jamal Khashoggi. And most important, don’t punish the Palestinians by leaving them without diplomatic options, condemning generations to come to a life of violent conflict.

About the Author
Susie Becher is Managing Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a collaborative quarterly published in Jerusalem; is Communications Director of the Policy Working Group, a team of senior academics, former diplomats, human rights defenders, and media experts who advocate for an end to the occupation and a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; and serves on the Steering Committee of Zulat, an activist think tank advocating for human rights and equality in Israel.
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