Where Biden Is (and Isn’t) Turning Back Trump’s Israel Policies

After a sharp rightward shift by the U.S. on the issue, President Biden must decide how far to move back to the left.,

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On its way out the door in late 2016, the Obama administration sought to draw a line in the sand on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Rather than block a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, the U.S. abstained. Days later, Secretary of State John Kerry warned in a parting address that the possibility for a two-state solution was dimming as Israeli settlers encroached further into Palestinian-held land.

“We cannot properly defend and protect Israel if we allow a viable two-state solution to be destroyed before our own eyes,” Mr. Kerry said.

But over the next four years, President Donald J. Trump showed basically no interest in challenging Israel on the settlements, or the conflict over all. Quite the contrary: He embraced Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing prime minister of Israel, as one of his favorite foreign leaders, and he took major steps to rubber-stamp Israel’s expansion into Palestinian-held territory.

All of which has set up a series of complicated choices for President Biden:

  • Which of Mr. Trump’s moves can be turned back, and which are basically irreversible?

  • How much latitude should the administration give to the Israeli government, as it expands deeper into Palestinian-held land?

  • And now that Israeli settlements are so predominant, is a “two-state solution” even a viable goal?

So far, Mr. Biden has shown little interest in becoming embroiled in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And effectively, that has meant that he has done relatively little to turn the tide on Israeli expansion into Palestinian-held land, or to push back against Israel’s attacks on Gaza.

Last week, Mr. Biden said he considered Israel’s latest military actions justified, given that Hamas fighters have fired thousands of rockets into Israeli territory since protests and skirmishes broke out in East Jerusalem in recent weeks.

“My expectation and hope is that this will be closing down sooner than later, but Israel has a right to defend itself when you have thousands of rockets flying into your territory,” Mr. Biden said, speaking slowly and measuring his words.

At the United Nations, the U.S. has repeatedly blocked efforts in the past week to pass resolutions calling for an immediate cease-fire.

Since then, the Palestinian death toll has risen into the hundreds, including over 50 children, and Israel has razed a building housing news-media offices, drawing international condemnation. This afternoon, in a conversation with Mr. Netanyahu, Mr. Biden expressed support for a cease-fire for the first time, but stopped short of demanding an end to Israel’s bombing campaign in Gaza and Hamas’s rocket fire from Gaza into Israel.

Lara Friedman, the president of the Foundation for Middle East Peace, said that for proponents of Palestinian rights, Biden’s approach had done little to move the ball forward. “The sense of disappointment and betrayal is palpable,” she said.

“Those comments are read clearly by the Bibi government as a green light,” she said, referring to Biden’s public statement last week. “If that’s not what you mean, you’ve got to say something. And if it is what you mean, you’ve got to own it.”

During the Trump years, perhaps the most conspicuous display of support for Israeli expansion into Palestinian-held territory was the announcement, in 2017, that the U.S. would move its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, effectively recognizing the contested holy city as Israel’s capital.

Currently inhabited by a mix of Muslims, Jews and Christians, Jerusalem would figure prominently into any potential negotiations over a two-state solution. Supporters of Palestinian statehood have long called control of East Jerusalem nonnegotiable.

In 1995, Congress passed a law — which Mr. Biden, then a senator, voted for — recognizing Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but no U.S. president had taken steps to move the embassy there. On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden criticized Mr. Trump as “shortsighted” for moving the embassy, but he said he would not move it back.

“Moving the embassy back, that was going to be difficult,” Ms. Friedman said. “It would’ve involved enormous amounts of political capital.”

Still, she added, “it’s not just that they’re not undoing the specific faits accomplis that they inherited.”

“What they also inherited was an almost set-in-stone U.S. policy” of supporting Israel — an approach that has become more difficult to maintain as Mr. Netanyahu has pressed a right-wing agenda toward the Palestinians, she said.

Since things are shifting so quickly, talk of a “two-state solution” has begun to sound almost quaint, said Yousef Munayyer, a scholar at the Arab Center Washington DC. “The Trump administration had basically buried the two-state prospect,” he said.

But the Biden administration has “not been able to find a way to articulate a path forward,” he added, describing what he saw as “an absence of leadership in this moment.”

In March 2019, Mr. Trump officially recognized Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a contested plateau that Israel seized from Syrian control in 1967, and that most of America’s major allies continue to consider unlawfully “occupied” by Israel.

Mr. Trump’s move drew condemnation from the U.N. Security Council, as well as prominent Democratic politicians, who called it a violation of international law — which prevents countries from keeping territory they seized through warfare.

But the statements of Mr. Netanyahu and Mike Pompeo, Trump’s secretary of state, also seemed to open up a hole in that very principle, according to Ms. Friedman. “When they recognized the Golan, they established a new principle of international law, as far as the U.S. was concerned, which said that a nation can keep land that it has acquired in a defensive war,” she said. “And that principle, if you believe it, allows Israel to also keep the West Bank.”

Mr. Biden’s administration has shown little appetite for confronting this rewriting of U.S. policy. Antony J. Blinken, Mr. Biden’s secretary of state, said in February that control of the Golan region “remains of real importance to Israel’s security,” and indicated that he didn’t have any immediate plans to revisit the Trump administration’s move.

Mr. Trump also dispatched his Israel ambassador to visit Ariel, a settlement in the West Bank, breaking with longstanding tradition not to legitimize the sites. J Street, a left-leaning Jewish lobbying group, criticized the move at the time as stepping over “a major, longstanding red line of bipartisan U.S. policy.”

Mr. Biden has condemned settlements in the West Bank — which Palestinians consider essential territory for a future state — but he has not indicated that he intends to take meaningful steps to stop them. Meanwhile, the Israeli government has been laying groundwork for further encroachment, including large investments in settlement infrastructure.

Mr. Munayyer said that without a break from precedent, the Biden administration risked tacitly endorsing the push into Palestinian land. “U.S. policy, regardless of the administration — Clinton, Bush, Obama, Trump — has helped incentivize a race to the right in Israeli politics, by ensuring that there is no consequence for doing that,” he said.

The Trump administration cut off American support for the U.N. aid program for Palestinian refugees and other forms of support for residents of the Palestinian territories. Mr. Biden has pledged to resume sending millions of dollars in assistance.

A U.N. agency provides health care to more than three million Palestinians, as well as education assistance and other aid; in April, the Biden administration said it would send $150 million to the agency, as well as put $85 million into direct aid to Palestinians.

But this could run into some legal hurdles. Congress passed the Taylor Force Act in 2018, restricting aid until the Palestinians agreed to certain conditions. The administration has said that it intends to comply with the legislation when doling out aid.

Mr. Biden is also working to reopen diplomatic channels with the Palestine Liberation Organization. In 2018, Trump closed down the P.L.O.’s mission in Washington, a step that previous administrations had deliberately resisted taking, signaling that the possibility remained open for peace talks toward a two-state solution.

Mr. Biden has pledged to reopen the P.L.O. mission. But that plan could run into legal issues as well, thanks to another Trump-era move: In 2019, Mr. Biden’s predecessor signed a law that, in countering a Supreme Court ruling, would leave the P.L.O. vulnerable to lawsuits seeking millions of dollars in damages for past shootings and bombings if it were to reopen a U.S. office.

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