The new approach of U.S. President Joe Biden and his administration to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has raised eyebrows as observers wonder whether Washington is abandoning its absolute support for Israel and shifting its policy toward the Palestinians.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken told Israeli counterpart Gabi Ashkenazi in a phone call last week that Israelis and Palestinians should enjoy “equal measures” of freedom, security, prosperity and democracy.
Many say these comments reflect more of a focus on the Palestinians than the pro-Israel policy conducted by Biden’s Republican predecessor, Donald Trump.
Biden appears to be refocusing U.S. priorities in the Middle East, reversing some of his predecessor’s all-encompassing embrace of Israel.
“It is quite certain that there’s a shift in the Biden administration toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and its much different than Trump was,” says Danny Ayalon, a former Israeli ambassador to Washington.
But Ayalon, who spent four years as Israel’s ambassador, believes that there’s nothing for Israel to worry about.
“It’s pretty much in line with the traditional U.S. policy from ‘67 on,” he says, referring to the Six-Day War in which Israel captured the West Bank from Jordan and the Gaza Strip from Egypt.
Ayalon says Israel and the U.S. have disagreed in the past on Washington’s position on several issues regarding the conflict.
“Just like previous administrations, whether it was Democratic or Republican – aside from Trump – there were differences on the two-state solution, or settlements, but it never did spill over to the bilateral relationship,” he says.
The Biden administration has partially restored aid to the Palestinians, reversing Trump-era cuts.
In early March, the U.S. transferred $15 million to “the most vulnerable communities” in the West Bank and Gaza, channeled through a private charity.
Palestinians broke off contacts with the Trump administration in 2017, after it recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and moved the US embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
Palestinians accused Trump of bias toward Israel, rejecting the former president’s peace plan dubbed by supporters the “Deal of the Century.”
The Trump administration also closed the office of the Palestine Liberation Organization – the internationally recognized representative of the Palestinian people – in Washington.
Abdelhamid Siyam, professor of political science and Middle East studies at Rutgers University, and bureau chief of the London-based Alquds Alarabi newspaper at the United Nations, says: “The secretary of state was commenting on the state of human rights around the world including the occupied Palestinian territories, and he admitted that the territories are occupied.”
Siyam recognizes that there is some change from the previous administration’s position on the conflict, but he does not view it as a “major” shift in policy.
“The Biden administration recognizes that there will be no change to the status of Jerusalem, and it will not reverse Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, or move the embassy out of Jerusalem,” he says.
Siyam says these kinds of measures are not “substantial,” and that the policy of the Biden administration in supporting Israel is “unshakable.”
“The strategic alliance between Israel and the United States goes beyond presidents and administrations, it is solid. No one should be under the illusion that the policy of the U.S. will drastically shift,” he said.
It is too optimistic to believe the U.S. is either abandoning Israel or adopting the Palestinian narrative, Siyam adds.
“Even if the administration wanted to change, there’s Congress and it could block or stop any steps the president may take,” he says.
Ayalon says that, at this point, U.S policy on the conflict remains at the “declarative” level.
There is a “disinterest” in the Israel-Palestinian conflict, the former ambassador said, adding: “Certainly, it’s not as high on the agenda as it was for the Obama administration,” where Biden served as vice president.
Ayalon says the seemingly different approach toward Israel by the Biden administration is a “tactical shift to aid the Palestinians, but other than that the US has much bigger fish to fry with other US concerns around the world.”
In 2018, the Trump administration stopped its financial aid to the PA and ended its contribution of hundreds of millions of dollars in funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees (UNRWA).
The U.S. a the time called UNRWA’s job of aiding 5.6 million people across the Middle East an “irredeemably flawed operation.”
“We see the shift from the previous administration in the unfreezing of the funds to the Palestinian Authority, and the planning to reinstate the PLO diplomatic mission in Washington D.C. and talks of resuming funds to UNRWA, but that the U.S. has other issues to deal with,” says Ayalon.
Since his Senate confirmation, Blinken has had several conversations with Ashkenazi, but it took Biden four weeks to call Israel’s long-time prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Many described the delay as a snub to Netanyahu, and a message that his warm relationship with the previous administration won’t be replicated.
Ayalon concedes that the Democratic Party is not as united on Israel as it was in the past.
“There’s no doubt that there’s a divide – not a rift – in the Democratic Party. There are progressive elements whose policy toward Israel may be not the friendliest, but they remain a minority, and the mainstream Democratic Party which Biden and Blinken are part of, they would not see any change in what they call the defense cooperation,” he says.
Biden is considered a centrist within the Democratic Party. He spent 36 years in the Senate, and has pushed back on the calls from the far-left wing of his party for a new way in the U.S. alliance with an increasingly right-wing Israel.
Siyam says that absolute support for Israel in the U.S. is shifting but that this movement will not be able to completely change the narrative. Pressure from some Democrats and U.S. Jewish groups will lead to change, however.
“We didn’t dream of these changes 20, or 25 years ago. It takes time,” he says.
“There is a slow change in favor of the Palestinian narrative in the U.S. at the grassroots level in general, and within the Democratic Party in particular. There are a number of elected officials to Congress like Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Bernie Sanders in the Senate. Yes, they have influence, and they speak up,” Siyam says.
He adds that these “little” steps don’t mean that the Biden administration will force Israel to “stop settlement activities, and stop confiscating Palestinian land, stop bulldozing houses.”
Meanwhile with four elections in two years, the political scene in Israel is chaotic. Netanyahu is fighting to preserve his political career. He was tasked on Tuesday by the country’s president with the mammoth job of forming a new government.
Ayalon says that while Israel tries to form a government and find a prime minister the U.S. may have to wait.
“If there is a new government in Israel with a center-right, or center-left prime minister this may be encouraging more to try to send feelers and see if there’s wiggle room to move forward,” Ayalon says.
But if Israel ends up with a right-wing government including the far-right Religious Zionist party of Bezalel Smotrich “then the Americans will waste no time on even trying,” he added.
He points out that nothing is going to happen as well until after the Palestinian legislative election scheduled for next month.
Siyam says that since Biden took office, Israel has expanded its settlement-building activities in complete defiance of international law.
“This administration has yet to call on Israel to stop the building of settlements and I don’t think they are serious about it. We are hearing rhetoric from the administration that doesn’t mean anything,” he says.