On Monday, Antony Blinken, former Deputy Secretary of State and Joe Biden’s leading foreign policy advisor, affirmed Biden’s strong pro-Israel credentials at a webcast hosted by the Orwellian-named Democratic Majority for Israel. His words made two things clear. One, Biden remains vastly preferable to Trump. Two, Biden is incapable of any positive contribution to ending the ongoing denial of Palestinian rights.
Blinken reaffirmed several details about Biden’s view of Israel and Palestine. Biden is opposed to annexation, but he will not condition U.S. military aid, or any U.S. support, on Israel backing off its annexation path. Biden is committed to projecting the image of “no daylight” between U.S. and Israeli policy and would keep any disagreements out of public view. Biden believes that an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians depends on the unrealistic demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel “as a Jewish state.” (See my piece on this at Responsible Statecraft)
All of this comes on the heels of Biden stating that he would not, if elected, move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv. I want to explore this issue a bit deeper, because the embassy question demonstrates that reversing the rash, reckless, or short-sighted action of any U.S. administration, not just Trump, is not a simple task. This is an important point, because so many decisions and policies are enacted in Washington because of political expediency, not strategy or long-term thinking. But once steps are taken, they are not easily reversed, even if they seem like they could be.
Biden’s problematic stance
“The move shouldn’t have happened in the context as it did, it should happen in the context of a larger deal to help us achieve important concessions for peace in the process,” Biden said in late April, speaking of Trump’s decision tom move the embassy to Jerusalem. “But now that it’s done, I would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv.”
Biden has indicated that he believes such a reversal would not be helpful to the “peace process.” Leaving aside the obvious fact that the peace process was a sham for many years, long dead even before Barack Obama and Biden left office, this belief is typical of mainstream Democrats for decades in that it is the exact opposite of the truth. In reality, there is no possible diplomacy involving the United States unless the historical error of relocating the embassy to Jerusalem is addressed.
The U.S. embassy was not technically “moved” to Jerusalem. The operations at the former embassy in Tel Aviv were transferred to the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem. That meant the consulate—which had previously been the connecting point for Palestinians and U.S. diplomats—was essentially shuttered. While the Trump administration stated that they were not changing their view on the status of Jerusalem and that it was still an issue to be negotiated between Israel and the Palestinians, in practice it blew up the long-standing international consensus that held all of Jerusalem as an international territory until such time as its final status is resolved.
The result of Trump’s decision was a final break between his administration and the Palestinians. Contact was severed and there have been no official communications since then, even while Trump and his team of pro-settler henchmen led by First Nepotist Jared Kushner were crafting the ridiculous “Deal of the Century.”
This is not a breach that can be easily healed. Jerusalem is a particularly sensitive issue for the Palestinians and coming back to the table with the U.S. as mediator after it moved its embassy to Jerusalem is going to be difficult for any Palestinian leader.
Yet Biden seems to believe that he can simply move on and find other ways to entice or force the Palestinians back to the table while the embassy stays in the disputed city. Trump tried that and was met with a deafening silence. Biden would not face quite the same ill will from the Palestinian people or leadership that Trump does, but he is gravely underestimating the impact of Trump’s stupidity on Palestinian politics, and is continuing the tradition of the Obama administration in downplaying the importance of core national issues to the Palestinian people and how much effect that will have on their leaders.
It is not impossible to resolve this quandary, but it would mean taking steps that would generate a great deal of anger in Israel. One way that might work is for the United States to specifically designate a new consulate as a U.S. mission to Palestine and situate it in East Jerusalem. By not calling at an embassy, the U.S. could argue that it is not tantamount to recognition of Palestine as a state (a separate matter which deserves serious consideration).
But the rage in Israel, and in Congress, would be enormous. It is something that even a Bernie Sanders might not do, and it is out of the question for Biden, and for most U.S. politicians.
Yet that action or something akin to it is what it would take to get the Palestinians back to the table at this point. The other options are a very long process of rebuilding not only U.S. credibility—which was already low among Palestinians after the disastrous Camp David II summit, the second Intifada, and endless, fruitless negotiations—but also the political willingness among the Palestinian people to re-enter a process they were long skeptical about—a skepticism the Trump administration validated.
The other option is the one Biden has already discounted, moving the embassy back. But even that path would be a much more difficult one than those who advocate such a decision seem to think.
Why not just move the embassy back to Tel Aviv?
This is easier said than done.
Most would agree that Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren were the most progressive candidates in the Democratic field, and the most supportive of Palestinian rights. Yet neither of them, when asked, would commit to reversing Trump’s decision to move the embassy to Jerusalem. Sanders said, “it’s something that we would take into consideration,” while Warren ducked the question entirely.
The difficulties in moving the embassy back to Tel Aviv are considerable. When Trump moved the embassy, what he did was fulfill the demands of a 1995 law, the Jerusalem Embassy Act. This bill, which passed with the usual overwhelming, bipartisan majorities, required the president to move the embassy to Jerusalem by May 31, 1999 or waive the requirement and explain to Congress every six months why moving the embassy would endanger U.S. national security interests. For more than two decades, presidents from both parties executed that waiver.
If a U.S. president even contemplated moving the embassy back now, they would face enormous, bipartisan, political opposition. The Jerusalem Embassy Act stated, specifically: “(1) Jerusalem should remain an undivided city in which the rights of every ethnic and religious group are protected; (2) Jerusalem should be recognized as the capital of the State of Israel; and (3) the United States Embassy in Israel should be established in Jerusalem no later than May 31, 1999.”
Now that the embassy has been moved, many in Congress will surely argue that the intent of the law was to keep the embassy in Jerusalem, even though there is nothing in the bill that explicitly forbids a president from moving it back. And, as long-time observer of Jerusalem affairs, Lara Friedman told me, “If Congress wanted to prevent the Embassy being moved back to Jerusalem, or wanted to put in place penalties for such an action, a new law would be required (one that I have no doubt would pass easily if it looked like a president was seriously contemplating such a reversal).”
All that would be a virtual certainty, and it would happen amid a political firestorm fueled by a wide variety of Jewish, Christian, neoconservative, and other groups. AIPAC, CUFI, the Democratic Majority for Israel, the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, and many other groups would weigh in with all their political and ideological muscle.
The fight itself might be enough to bring Palestinians back into contact with the administration that started it. But it would mean that the administration expended massive political capital to restart talks with an alienated Israel, backed by an angry Congress. The Palestinians would be there, but not only would that administration be fighting an uphill battle just to start actual talks, they would be betting that they could get a final agreement before leaving office, or risk the next administration walking back at least some of their policies. That is an exceptionally long shot.
In other words, the potential reward simply wouldn’t be worth the fight, politically. That’s even more true when we consider that Trump explicitly stated that he was not changing Jerusalem’s status with the embassy move. As phony as that statement may have been, it can be used to argue that all the options for sharing or dividing Jerusalem are still on the table.
The Harm That Trump Has Done
This situation is made much more complicated not only by Trump’s recklessness but by a Congress which, 25 years ago, passed legislation that many of their members thought was an easy way to grandstand and get pro-Israel votes, counting on the president to regularly waive the parts that could interfere with diplomatic efforts. Trump came in and blew up those expectations.
In doing so, Trump put the next administration in an exceedingly difficult position. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas severed contact with the United States over the move of the embassy. If he comes back to the table without addressing that act, he would do so without the support of most of the Palestinian people. It’s a non-starter.
To get the Palestinians to re-establish communication with the United States, either the embassy decision must be reversed or some equally unprecedented nod to the Palestinians must be granted. Either of these would create a political firestorm for the president who does it. And, even if she or he pulls that off, they are still going to have to face the reality that the U.S. has proven unable to be a fair broker. Palestinians will not trust us, Israel will continue to expect its friend and ally to be on its side, and domestic political pressures will continue to make a balanced U.S. approach impossible.
All of that is before we even consider the effects of unilateral Israeli annexation—which, as I have pointed out, Biden opposes but also refuses to put teeth in that opposition—which the new government formed by Benjamin Netanyahu and Benny Gantz are pressing the Trump administration to allow quickly, fearing a Biden victory in November.
Netanyahu moved the issue of Israel from one with a treasured bipartisan consensus on Capitol Hill to one that rests deep in the heart of the Republican Party. Yet mainstream Democrats continue to behave as if the basic playing field is the same as it was twenty-five years ago, and that Netanyahu—who, it’s important to note, has spent more time as prime minister than anyone else in Israeli history—is a mere anomaly. That miscalculation leaves Democrats continuing to scramble to find ways to prove their “love of Israel” and pro-Israel bona fides while simultaneously opposing Israel’s extreme rejection of Palestinian rights and, indeed, any compromise at all.
That’s the bind Biden will find himself in if he does win the election. It will be a choice between the political firestorm of taking actions that will make Israel, AIPAC, and their fellow travelers in Washington go ballistic or sit back helplessly as Israel tightens its iron fist on the Palestinians, over the objections of the vast majority of Democratic voters. The longer Democrats stay on the fence, the starker, and harsher, that choice is going to be.
Supporters of Palestinian rights have begun to change this grim political landscape, but there is a long way still to go before any president has the flexibility to even begin steering U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine in a positive direction. But just the fact that a major Democratic candidate, Sanders, can call Netanyahu a racist and get away with it, and even a self-proclaimed “Zionist” like Biden can talk about the need for a fundamental change in Israeli policy show that change is possible.
Advocates for full equality between Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs can push forward in a Biden administration, but it’s crucial that they do so with a solid understanding of the political realities they face. The ground must be laid for the American public to understand why a U.S. embassy in Jerusalem is such a bad idea, what conditions are for Palestinians in both Gaza and the West Bank that make it impossible to live their daily lives and, most of all, that the narrative most of our fellow Americans believe about the history of diplomacy and life on the ground in Israel and Palestine just isn’t so.
That case is being made, and it is having an effect among the Democratic party. It’s happening much too slowly, but that is the only way it will happen.