Will the United States ever recognize Palestine? For many, that question has not been on the table for years. But with tensions between Israel and Palestine running high and Israel facing its own domestic challenges, it may be the right time for the Biden administration to do just that. Recognition, of course, comes with risks that no other US administration has wanted to deal with. But President Joe Biden is well-positioned to push Israel to act in accordance with international law and recognize Palestine without incurring high costs. The key to Biden’s success in this realm lies in a logical, step-by-step process that would simultaneously hold Israel accountable and move toward recognition.
First, the United States should condition its military assistance to Israel to stop violence against Palestinians and end its policy of shielding Israel at the UN by refusing to block resolutions criticizing Israel. Next, the United States should extend diplomatic recognition to Palestine. The White House can condition such a move on the completion of free and fair elections in Palestine, to which Hamas and Fatah reportedly agreed in 2022.
These two moves will set the stage for the United States to push Israel to engage in good-faith negotiations with the Palestinian Authority eventually, put a timeline on halting settlement construction, set a date for withdrawing from the West Bank and cooperating with the Palestinian Authority (and Jordan) on governing Jerusalem together. The real question, however, is: What leverage does the Biden administration have to convince Israel to take these actions?
BIDEN’S GEOPOLITICAL LEVERAGE
While Arab-Israeli relations and internal upheaval in Israel are two components that can help Biden make the controversial decision to recognize Palestine, there is a third factor: the recent intensification of ties between China, Russia, and Iran.
What might the Middle East look like if the United States extended formal diplomatic recognition to Palestine and forced Tel Aviv into good-faith negotiations with Gaza?
In light of Israeli-Iranian acrimony, Tel Aviv would be unable to turn toward Russia or China as a sponsor if the United States threatened to withhold military and economic aid in the absence of good-faith Israeli-Palestinian relations. Besides the fact that Russia and China have recently tightened relations with each other and Iran, Israel is unlikely to align itself against the West. Furthermore, China and (especially) Russia are hardly reliable military allies, given that China currently lacks the capabilities to project significant military force into the Middle East, and Russia is bogged down in Ukraine. Thus, any Israeli threat of aligning with Russia or China would hold no water.
Given Israel’s inability to turn to another Great Power sponsor, the United States has several tools at its disposal to compel Israel to respect international rules and norms vis-a-vis Palestine: specifically, diplomacy and withholding military and economic benefits. For example, the Biden administration could take a different approach in international organizations like the UN Security Council, allowing resolutions censuring Israel to pass. Given the long history of the US shielding Israel from consequences in such venues, permitting such accountability would be a thorn in the side of any Israeli government.
The United States gives Israel $3.8 billion in military equipment annually. Since the United States’ most recent defense agreement with Israel is a 10-year Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed in 2016, the Biden administration could threaten not to renew the defense relationship when the memorandum expires. Alternatively, because MOUs are not legally binding, Washington could simply threaten to cease military aid to Israel if it does not change its behavior vis-à-vis Palestine and the Palestinians. US threats of withholding military assistance would play on the Israeli government’s very public fear of Hezbollah’s burgeoning missile and drone arsenal. The implication of being left to face Hezbollah and Iran alone could induce a more cooperative Israeli stance toward the Palestinians.
Furthermore, Israel is not an important trading partner for the United States, constituting just 0.7% of both US imports and exports. However, American trade is critical for Israel, as the United States is both the top exporter and importer. As such, the threat of immediate or (more likely) eventual decreased trade between the United States and Israel could serve as a valuable stick with which to coerce Tel Aviv.
While the Netanyahu government is unlikely to take these steps, the United States could use a private and public pressure campaign to force them to play ball or — particularly in light of recent protests against the government’s attempts to weaken the judiciary — resign in favor of a more cooperative, less extremist administration. Recent Israeli violence against Palestinians, and the Netanyahu government’s complicity in that violence, further undermines its domestic and international standing, making such a change far more likely.
Additionally, in light of the rapid erosion of Hamas’ mandate to govern Gaza, pushing for such negotiations could also help hasten the collapse of Hamas’ control of the Palestinian Legislative Council by helping a more pliable government come to power. Indeed, according to a deal between Hamas and its main rival, Fatah, Palestine should see its first elections in 15 years in 2023, making this a more distinct possibility than previously.
Will this action plan threaten US interests? In short, no. Israel’s current posture essentially forces it to defend US interests simply due to the confluence of interests between the two countries. For example, it is impossible to imagine a situation in the near future in which Israel does not seek to diminish Iranian power and influence throughout the region because it would be suicidal for them not to work against Iran and its proxies. Indeed, the head of the Israeli Defense Ministry’s Political-Security Division, Brig. Gen. (Res.) Dror Shalom recently indicated that Israel will act decisively to stop Iran’s nuclear program, with or without US help. Israel, therefore, would not have much of a choice but to act in a way that redounds to the benefit of the United States, at least in the near- to medium-term. Additionally, withholding arms sales and funding does not necessarily mean the United States would have to cease military and intelligence cooperation with Israel.
LOOKING INTO THE CRYSTAL BALL
What might the Middle East look like if the United States extended formal diplomatic recognition to Palestine and forced Tel Aviv into good-faith negotiations with Gaza? For one thing, it would drastically improve the chances of solidifying a US-led security framework against Iran, as it would remove a major barrier to Arab negotiations and cooperation with Israel — a historic problem for the United States, as seen during the Carter administration.
A more durable Middle East security architecture could also better counter growing Chinese influence in the region. Simply put, that structure would put any Arab states working with China in the position of being on the outside looking in, especially if coupled with US demands that members of the coalition limit their ties with China. While this could be a tough pill for Saudi Arabia to swallow — after all, China is its top trading partner — Riyadh is unlikely to want to sacrifice US military aid for Chinese trade. Given recent Chinese success in brokering a Saudi-Iranian rapprochement and potentially ending the war in Yemen, the United States could use a diplomatic victory in the region — concrete steps toward Palestinian-Israeli peace would deliver such a win.
Clearly, then, Biden has the necessary leverage to induce better Israeli behavior toward Palestine and even secure negotiations cooperation. While Israeli good-faith conduct in those negotiations cannot be forced — even with US pressure — getting Tel Aviv to cease some of its more inflammatory and illegal practices is certainly a good start.
Although it is doubtful that the Biden administration will take any of the steps outlined above, it is important to highlight that holding Israel accountable and recognizing Palestine can be done. What’s really needed is the political courage to do it, which the White House may not have.
Benjamin V. Allison is a PhD student in History at the University of Texas at Austin, where he studies US foreign and national security policy since 1945, especially toward the Middle East and Russia.