United States President Joe Biden will soon be in the region. His first stops will be Israel and Palestinian territories. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be the first Arab leader he will meet outside of Washington, since he stepped into the White House on January 20, 2021. Despite the symbolism of meeting Abbas at the beginning of his trip, it is totally unlikely that Biden will have anything particularly encouraging to say to the Palestinian people and their leaders. According to what I have been told from insiders who participated in the preparatory meetings with the State Department staff, the Palestinian leadership was told not to raise the issue of opening the US Consulate in east Jerusalem in public with the president or the opening of the PLO office in Washington. They were told that those issues are being dealt with at a lower level and that they should not embarrass Biden.
Biden will probably bring a package of some kind of additional financial aid but none of that can go directly to the Palestinian Authority because of the Taylor Force Act which is an “Act of the US Congress to stop American economic aid to the Palestinian Authority until it ceases paying stipends through the Palestinian Authority Martyr’s Fund to individuals who commit acts of terrorism and to the families of deceased terrorists.” The Palestinian president is not likely to change this policy nor does the Biden Administration have enough support in Congress to change this law.
Biden will not talk about a renewed US-Israeli-Palestinian peace initiative either. This issue is very low on the US agenda, especially with Israel currently in election season. So, the bottom line is that the US President will not have anything particularly optimistic for the Palestinians at this time.
They may suggest that it would be wise for them to get on board with the Abraham Accords, but as the PA views those accords as a betrayal of the Palestinian people and the agreed-upon Arab Peace Initiative, the Palestinians will not agree. It should be noted that the PA is making efforts to improve relations with the Abraham Accords Arab states, but not connected to the peace agreements with Israel – and not under the Abraham Accords.
In Israel, Biden will most likely show his support for Prime Minister Yair Lapid, although he will also meet with opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu. Biden’s main focus with Israel will be Iran and regional security. With or without a renewed agreement with Iran, the US and moderate Gulf States have been speaking about an ongoing regional defense architecture to prevent Iran from achieving “threshold state” status and for a plan of action if it does. In addition to Israel, the key player in the region is, of course, Saudi Arabia.
Saudi normalization - a catalyst for Middle East peace?
THE SAUDIS have been opening up to Israel over the past couple of years but are not yet quite onboard with the Abraham Accords and explicit recognition of Israel and a peace treaty. Saudi Arabia is a very different country from the United Arab Emirates (UAE): it is much more conservative, much more religious and is the guardian of Islam holy places. The Saudis are much more cautious in dealing with Israel than the UAE or Bahrain. But it is clear that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed Ben Salman (MBS)is anxious to move closer to Israel, but he is unlikely to make dramatic moves while his father is still king and he is also very unlikely to throw the Palestinians under the wheels of a bus.
In recognizing the importance of the new regional security-defense architecture focused on Iran, I would advise Biden and his team, Israel, the Palestinians and the Saudis to address the way that Israel and the Palestinian territories could move forward with creating the enabling environment for some kind of renewed positive connection, which would serve the interests of all the parties involved. Prime Minister Lapid mentioned Israel’s outstretched hand to all of Israel’s neighbors, including the Palestinians. This is a clear shift from former prime minister Naftali Bennett’s commitment not to do anything on the Palestinian track. The transitional government has already put a hold on Israeli plans for developing Area E1, between Jerusalem and Maaleh Adumim.
It is important that the Lapid government also prevent the establishment of additional unauthorized outposts that settlers are working on. It would also be very wise for the Lapid government to take serious action to put a halt on settler violence against innocent Palestinian farmers and shepherds coming from the outposts all over Area C in the West Bank.
The desire of both Israel and Saudi Arabia to move closer together could be leveraged to help Israel overcome its resistance to deal with the Palestinian issue in a substantive way. The Palestinians must also be encouraged to view MBS’s desire to move closer to Israel as an opportunity for them to push the Saudis to leverage its power on Israel and the US, which could aid in shifting Israeli public opinion on the Palestinian issue and put it back on the table with a more positive chance of some progress.
The Israeli quest for recognition by the Saudis and the possible economic opportunities for Israel could create greater openness in Israel to looking towards the immediate east with greater willingness to search for solutions together with the Palestinians. The peace agreements between Israel and the UAE, and Israel and Bahrain have impacted positively on the general Israeli image of Arabs. That change has not taken place vis-à-vis the Palestinians – those in the West Bank and Gaza, as well as those in Israel.
The improvement of the image of Palestinians in the eyes of Israelis will probably only happen when peace is more the focus of the relationship between the two sides. Until then, the opportunity of Israeli-Saudi gradual normalization can be a leveraging point for the benefit of Israeli-Palestinian relations.