Earlier this month, Israel’s Civil Administration High Planning Council convened after an eight-month hiatus to approve more than 4,900 new settlement units in the West Bank. The majority of these are located in settlements that would probably be evacuated in the (unlikely) event of a peace agreement, including militant communities like Yitzhar and Eli, which are geographically positioned to disrupt the contiguity of any future Palestinian state.
Despite the economic distress of two lockdowns, Israel’s settlement growth has reached a record high this year. The most recent building spree has been read by analysts as evidence of Israel “cramming in as much as it can under the wire” in case of a Biden victory next week.
For the Israeli right, this makes sense. Biden enjoys a heavy lead in the polls and few expect him to be as staunch an ally to Israel as Trump. Yet a cursory glance at Biden’s record on Israel-Palestine suggests they have little to fear.
Like most senior Democrats, Biden has always been a vocal supporter of the Jewish state. Nadav Tamir, an ex-diplomat and advisor to former Israeli Prime Minister and President Shimon Perez, recently told AFP: “There is no doubt Biden is a friend who has very strong emotions for Israel … [he] is steeped in an American political tradition that urges disagreements with Israel to remain discreet.” Tamir recalls that during the second Palestinian intifada, Biden refused to publicly condemn a 2001 Israeli airstrike in Nablus which killed two children, even after President George W. Bush did so, on the grounds that criticism of Israel should be “aired privately”.
As Obama’s vice-president, Biden reportedly worked behind closed doors to undermine his boss’s strategy of publicly pressuring Netanyahu into enacting a settlement freeze and resuming peace talks. According to the American liberal Zionist commentator Peter Beinart, Biden was instrumental in shielding Netanyahu from having to make even minor concessions.
On one occasion, during a fractious White House meeting between American and Israeli delegations over the Iranian nuclear threat, the vice-president allegedly threw his arm around Israel’s national security advisor Uzi Arad, saying with his trademark smile: “Just remember that I am your best fucking friend here.”
In 2020, Biden’s uncritical support for Israel shows no signs of abating. According to reports, Biden personally intervened to keep the term “occupation” out of the official Democratic platform, putting him at odds with the preferred taxonomy of international legal bodies like the UN Security Council and International Courts of Justice. Instead, Biden boasts of his “unstinting support for Israel”, describing his commitment to protecting Israel’s security and defending her against boycotts as “stalwart”, “unshakeable”, “unwavering” and “unprecedented”.
Biden has said he won’t reverse Trump’s highly contentious transfer of the US embassy to Jerusalem; he actually endorsed the move two decades before Trump in a 1995 Senate bill, claiming it would “send the right signal”. Biden’s 2020 campaign claims it will instead reopen a US consulate in East Jerusalem to help “engage the Palestinians”, but in the absence of any workable peace plan, engagement is facile.
Still, characterising Biden’s approach to Israel-Palestine as indistinguishable from Trump’s would be an overstatement. There is daylight between the two septuagenarians on, for example, the Iran nuclear deal, abandoned by Trump in 2018 at Netanyahu’s request, but which Biden has promised to rejoin. Biden also opposes Trump’s Middle East peace plan, which reversed decades of US support for a two-state solution, calling it a “political stunt” (albeit on account of its failure to advance “the security and survival of a Jewish and democratic Israel”). His platform retains perfunctory support for “a negotiated two-state outcome” – though this fundamentally ignores Israel’s de facto annexation of the West Bank, which has buried any prospect of two states.
“[Biden’s] administration is likely to curtail or cancel some of the most egregiously offensive anti-Palestinian measures of the Trump administration,” says Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and author of The Hundred Years’ War on Palestine, told Novara Media in an interview. “However, he is likely to revert to the standard pro-Israel position of his Democratic predecessors, which has enabled and emboldened Israel, and facilitated and helped pay for its colonial expansion at the expense of the Palestinians.”
Under a Biden presidency, Israel is unlikely to face any major consequences for practising what human rights groups deem a policy of apartheid in the West Bank. During the Democratic primaries, Biden dismissed Bernie Sanders’ plan to condition US aid to Israel on its treatment of Palestinians as “bizarre”, comparing it to threatening France with expulsion from NATO.
On this issue the Democratic nominee is lightyears away from his base, the vast majority of which supports cutting the $3bn America sends annually to Israel, and ending US complicity in its illegal occupation of the West Bank. Biden’s refusal to countenance his supporters’ concerns is reflective of a broader dismissiveness towards the progressive left, evidenced by his rejection of the Green New Deal and universal healthcare. “The major ongoing changes in attitudes towards the Palestine issue among young people in the Jewish community, on college campuses, and at the base of the Democratic party are unlikely to have an effect on policy in the near future,” Professor Khalidi told Novara Media.
Biden may also avoid progressives’ scrutiny on Israel-Palestine because of its receding salience relative to other domestic issues. “Given the domestic situation, the pandemic, the economy, America’s fraying institutions, racial justice, I don’t think a lot of foreign policy issues are really going to be priorities for the foreseeable future,” said Khaled Elgindy, a senior fellow at Washington DC’s Middle East Institute, in an interview with Novara Media.
Palestinians may welcome some American restraint. For decades, the US has acted more as Israel’s lawyer than a neutral broker in the conflict, emboldening it to oppress Palestinians with impunity. The consequences of longstanding American favouritism can be seen in the lack of appetite for ending the occupation among Israel’s major political parties, a country where support for Trump outstrips that in almost any other. A Trump victory would be a catastrophe for Palestinians, unleashing unprecedented unconstrained settlement expansion and leading eventually to the Bantustanization of the West Bank. Yet in upholding a brutal status quo, Biden would not bring justice any closer.
Aron Keller is an editor at Vashti and member of Na’amod: British Jews against Occupation.