OpinionMiddle East

Biden’s Mideast peace problem? He lives in the past

In effect, the U.S. president is pursuing a new “appease” process characterized by the single-minded elevation of the Palestinian leadership while not holding them accountable for incentivizing violence against Israel.

Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on the campaign trail in Henderson, Nev., on Feb. 14, 2020. Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden on the campaign trail in Henderson, Nev., on Feb. 14, 2020. Credit: Flickr/Gage Skidmore.
Jacob Olidort
Jacob Olidort
Jacob Olidort is director of the Center for American Security and its Middle East Peace Project at the America First Policy Institute.

U.S. President Joe Biden’s first visit to the Middle East next month will include stops in Israel and the West Bank. It is notable that in the White House press statement listing the issues Biden plans to raise with his Israeli and Palestinian counterparts, the word “peace” does not appear.

This is not because Biden is uninterested in advancing peace between Israelis and Palestinians, as some media outlets have implied.

On the contrary, Biden has taken a series of steps to elevate the Palestinian leadership over the last 17 months, including restoring the U.S. aid that former President Donald Trump halted. On June 9, just last week, the Biden administration opened a new “Office of Palestinian Affairs” in Jerusalem, three years after the Trump administration closed the Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem.

The opening of the office is not only a reversal of Trump administration policy but also an explicit rejection of the Israeli government’s opposition to the current administration’s earlier plan to reopen the Palestinian consulate in Jerusalem.

It is an ironic coincidence that, on the same day that the Biden administration announced its decision to open the Office of Palestinian Affairs, two Palestinians were indicted for their role in a deadly ax attack in the town of Elad in which they killed three Israelis and wounded several others.

Biden’s failures in the Middle East are markedly different from those in other parts of the world. His disastrous withdrawal from Afghanistan, which emboldened Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade Ukraine, and his repeated gaffes regarding Taiwan, among other difficult moments over the last 17 months, all stem from carelessness and a lack of engagement.

But his Middle East policy fails in a different way. It is a systematic kind of engagement in the worst possible manner. In effect, Biden is pursuing a new “appease” process characterized by the single-minded elevation of the Palestinian leadership while not holding them accountable for incentivizing violence against Israel and disregarding Israel’s expressed concerns.

By contrast, Trump conditioned the elevation of the Palestinian leadership on two criteria: First, stop rewarding terrorism. Second, if you want to become a state, start acting like one. If the Palestinian leadership had accepted these conditions, they would have received a $50 billion investment to boost their economy.

Until the above conditions were met, however, the Trump administration contended that the Palestinian government was not qualified to be part of any peace agreement and certainly not worthy of U.S. financial support.

In the meantime, America would not wait for the Palestinians but would instead work with nations in the region who have a genuine commitment to peace. This rigorous diplomatic effort resulted in the signing of the historic Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco.

On Jan. 28, 2020, Trump described his “Peace to Prosperity” vision as “a historic opportunity for the Palestinians to finally achieve an independent state of their very own.” But that opportunityas the Trump administration’s policy made clearcould only come after Palestinian leaders stopped “using [their people] as pawns to advance terrorism and extremism” and accepted that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and the Golan Heights belong to Israel. Israel’s sovereignty and security, in other words, were not negotiable.

That is also why Trump signed the Taylor Force Act into law in March 2018, named after West Point graduate and Afghanistan war veteran and graduate student Taylor Force of Lubbock, Texas, who was killed in a Palestinian terrorist attack in Israel. The legislation cut all American aid to the Palestinian Authority until they chose to stop their “pay for slay” programa government-run fund that provides remuneration to the families of Palestinian terrorists.

These actions signaled that not only did the Trump administration stand clearly with the Israeli people, but also with the Palestinian people. And they showed that the administration was serious about working towards a Palestinian state if the Palestinians themselves were serious about it.

Tragically, Biden and his team lack any serious vision for promoting peace in the Middle East. They not only want to revert to the failed land-for-peace paradigm of previous administrations but also think that offering mere gestures of appeasement to the Palestinian leadership will be sufficient. It is likely that, in the Biden administration’s calculus, the fact that those gestures happen to be reversals of Trump administration policy is an added bonus.

A White House press statement notes that, on his trip to the Middle East, Biden will outline “his affirmative vision for U.S. engagement in the region.” If the last 17 months are any indicator, it will not be a vision of peace, but of appeasing America’s adversaries, regardless of the cost.

Jacob Olidort is a historian of the Middle East and recently served in the office of Vice President Mike Pence. He serves as director of the Center for American Security at the America First Policy Institute.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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