Few U.S. foreign policies are undergoing more of a pivot than those on Arab-Israeli peacemaking. Following four years of near-constant efforts to redefine America’s role and inject a high degree of politicization into U.S. engagement, Washington’s policy is predictably and necessarily returning to a more traditional, depoliticized, bipartisan posture.
The pivot is most dramatic in terms of bilateral U.S. relations with Palestinians, which are being recalibrated away from the adversarial approach of former president Donald Trump. Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s April 7 announcement renewing U.S. assistance to Palestinians is the most dramatic and most visible break with Trump’s policies. But the U.S. shift is likely to unfold in more subtle ways as well. Even as Joe Biden’s administration embraces the Trump-brokered normalization processes between Israel and Arab states, it will likely seek to leverage these largely positive steps—unlike Trump, who effectively treated them as a substitute for addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
The Biden administration will continue to invest in and promote a U.S.-Israel alliance and maintain what is—by any definition—a strong degree of partiality in mediating Arab-Israeli affairs. This partiality, starting with intensive American involvement in the 1970s under president Richard Nixon, had been part and parcel of U.S. diplomatic successes up until Trump took office. Trump traded the earlier advantages of partiality for a different construct: a partisan and ideological alignment with a relatively narrow segment of Israeli society and his political allies at home.
He did not fully realize his designs, however. Even within his own domestic political setting, Trump could not completely redefine U.S. policy. For example, his barely feigned support for a two-state solution was rejected by a majority in the Democratic-led House, as evidenced by H.R. 326 in December 2019, though with only a hint of bipartisan support. A more vivid example of how the Trump administration’s designs were stymied is in the civil society and peacebuilding realm. In December 2020, a bipartisan majority in Congress voted to support the Partnership Fund for Peace, which exponentially expands America’s investment in bottom-up efforts to build bridges across societies and create conditions conducive to renewed peacemaking.1
Still, the Trump administration’s departure from long-standing U.S. policy was a major setback in the decades-long American investment in Arab-Israeli peace—a pursuit that has generated tremendous strategic gains for the United States over many years, even if a number of peace efforts ran aground.
Given the Biden administration’s reshaping of U.S. policy, it is a useful time to debate alternative approaches. It would be inadvisable to simply go back in time and restore earlier policies. Some previous approaches were not working, and others may be less relevant four years on.
The paper, “Breaking the Israel-Palestine Status Quo,” published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the U.S./Middle East Project, comes at a time when debate about U.S. policy has been renewed.
The authors recommend a U.S. approach that “avoids returning to endgame negotiations or pursuing ambitious new peace plan initiatives”—wise advice given mounting evidence that neither party is prepared or able to engage on top-down solutions. Neither are regional U.S. partners or global allies clamoring for such an initiative.
That said, the U.S. administration should prepare for other contingencies. This is a landscape that can shift quickly and dramatically, whether it be renewed violence in Gaza or a rocky transition for the Palestinian Authority once President Mahmoud Abbas leaves office, a likely political development under Biden’s watch.
One factor the authors fail to consider sufficiently is that U.S. policy is pivoting at a time when Washington is deeply preoccupied with responding to the global pandemic and economic dislocations at home and recovering from the most fraught presidential transition in American history. Another important factor shaping an evolving U.S. policy is that the strategic importance of Palestinian-Israeli peace has waned relative to earlier periods, making it invariably a lower priority on Washington’s foreign policy agenda. We may yet have reached its nadir.
The emergence of a new approach to U.S.-Palestinian relations will depend on changes to Palestinian prisoner payments, which many see as incentivizing political violence and terrorism. And in this sense, the paper’s authors rightly call for Palestinian authorities to “reform” prisoner and social welfare payments, as this will be important for sustaining renewed U.S.-Palestinian bilateral ties. The issue is unlikely to disappear and will remain a serious concern for Washington regardless of whether it received similar scrutiny in the past.
More broadly, though, the authors call for, and place a strong emphasis on, a “rights-based” approach. On the surface, it may be appealing, particularly to many Americans given the strong role of norms and values in U.S. foreign policy. Rights are especially important to highly engaged domestic constituencies, like Jewish Americans, many of whom advocate strongly for Israel’s security and also for its character as a “Jewish and democratic” state. Granted, the emphasis on norms in U.S. policy has waxed and waned over time, but it nonetheless is a recurring feature. Moreover, following four years of the Trump administration largely marginalizing norms and rights, this traditional, bipartisan component is naturally returning to center stage under Biden.
Yet a rights-based model must be balanced with the interests-based dimension of U.S. policy, not to mention the national interests of the parties themselves. Moreover, in their analysis, the authors do not apply the framework evenly to all parties.
The authors argue for jettisoning the Trump approach to Israeli settlements and for a policy that fully differentiates between these settlements and Israel’s pre-1967 boundaries, but such a standard should not be applied without exception. For more than twenty years, the United States has been engaged (on and off) in devising compromises that involve land swaps and adjustments to the 1967 lines—under both Democratic and Republican administrations—which is why an inflexible approach to differentiation would create more problems than it solves.
The paper also includes references to domestic affairs in Israel, specifically linking U.S. policy on the conflict with Jewish-Arab ties within Israel. This is a subject better left outside the scope of U.S. peacemaking diplomacy and should remain part of America’s bilateral relationship with Israel—where the United States has proven it can have meaningful and positive impacts, even if largely out of view, as was the case with president Barack Obama’s administration. Furthermore, that internal Israeli question, unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict itself, has been on a positive trajectory in recent years, though significant challenges remain.
In the multilateral sphere, the authors emphasize that the United States should “refrain” from vetoing UN Security Council (UNSC) resolutions. But a new U.S. policy would benefit far more from exploring what could be done proactively. Israeli leaders are more receptive to balanced, pragmatic actions at the UN than they generally appear to be, as witnessed after the 2014 Gaza war when Israel supported—yet Palestinian leaders rejected—a far-reaching UNSC framework to address the area’s endemic insecurity and poverty.
Last, but not least, on the critical question of Palestinians returning to the ballot box, the authors write that the United States “should respect the outcome of any election.” This works as a general principle, but given the mistakes made in relaxing international standards and expectations ahead of the 2006 legislative elections—and the conditionality (implicit and explicit) that comes with U.S. economic assistance—the United States and its international partners should carefully consider how best to ensure that support for democratic outcomes also strengthens prospects for peace. In that vein, a commitment to foreswearing violence and to past agreements should remain central features of U.S. policy.
As the paper’s proposals and many others get debated in the months and years ahead, drawing upon the many successes of past American efforts, and learning from the failures, will be critical to getting U.S. policy back on track.
Scott Lasensky served as a senior policy adviser on the Middle East and Israel in the Obama administration. He is a visiting instructor at the University of Maryland and is the co-author of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace (Cornell University Press, 2013). Lasensky has led research efforts and track 2 dialogue programs at the United States Institute of Peace and the Council on Foreign Relations, where he also served as the assistant director of the U.S./Middle East Project (2000–2003).
1 The measure was introduced in the House by Nita Lowey (D-NY) and Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) and in the Senate by Chris Coons (D-DE), Lindsey Graham (R-SC), Tim Kaine (D-VA), and Cory Gardner (R-CO).