In a late 2016 New York Times op-ed, former President Jimmy Carter urged then-President Barack Obama to formally recognize the State of Palestine before leaving office.
Obama did not follow Carter’s advice, and President Donald Trump further strengthened Israel’s position in its conflict with Palestine by recognizing Jerusalem as its capital, negotiating peace deals between Israel, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates, Sudan, and Morocco, and proposing a lop-sided peace deal between Palestine and Israel that was doomed to fail.
Now, with Carter in his final days, the situation has changed drastically. While the open Israeli rapprochement with several Arab states is a fairly recent (and remarkable) phenomenon, the more important shift has come in recent months, as Iran, China, and Russia have tightened relations with Israel. Under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the new Israeli government has repeatedly demonstrated its disdain for Palestinian rights and the rule of law by appointing extremists like Itamar Ben-Gvir to positions of power and seeking to gut the Israeli judicial system.
Biden campaigned on a human-rights-centered foreign policy, a promise on which he has largely failed to deliver. Nowhere is this clearer than in his continued steadfast support for Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights.
Just this week, Israeli security forces attacked Muslim worshipers at al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem — the third-holiest site in Islam — an action that Washington failed to explicitly condemn, instead offering milquetoast expressions of being “extremely concerned” by the violence. The White House continues to remain silent even as Israel has used rockets launched at its territory as retaliation by the Palestinians to conduct air strikes against targets in Gaza and Lebanon. (This is not to suggest that Israel does not have the right to defend itself — it does — but is simply to highlight that Tel Aviv has repeatedly provoked Gaza in this manner, in what is clearly an attempt to “mow the grass” by regularly attacking Hamas.)
All of this presents the Biden administration with a unique but limited window of opportunity in which it can change the course of US policy toward Israel and Palestine. Some changes that the Biden administration could engage in are: formally recognizing Palestine, pressing Tel Aviv to engage in good-faith negotiations with Gaza, halting settlement construction in the West Bank, and cooperating on Jerusalem. But why would the Biden administration make such a risky move? The answer is more straightforward than we think.
The United States has long supported the state of Israel for security, religious, and political-ideological reasons. Since the Cold War, Israel has been an important partner in protecting US interests in the Middle East. Within the United States, the influence of dispensationalist theology among evangelical Christians, which holds that Israel must be restored before the End Times begin and Christ returns, has been a powerful motivating factor behind US support. Finally, Israel is often considered the only democracy in the Middle East and is therefore seen as an important ideological ally. These reasons have combined to create a strong pro-Israel lobby in the United States, both in the formal sense of lobbying members of Congress and in the broader sense of creating a strong constituency among American voters, making support of the Jewish state a bipartisan issue.
Yet, the Biden administration should consider changing its policy toward Israel. President Joe Biden should recognize Palestine and pressure Israel to act in accordance with international law because of Israel’s well-documented policy of apartheid toward the Palestinian people and its illegal occupation of the West Bank, which is Palestinian territory. (Some would argue that the State of Israel’s very existence violates Palestinian sovereignty. While that is historically true, I am not arguing here that Israel should not exist, but rather that a two-state solution is the most just and feasible end goal.)
Practically, such a move would buy the United States a tremendous amount of goodwill throughout the world, especially in the Middle East, where its tacit support for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people has long been a significant driver of anti-American sentiment. It would also make American opposition to the Russian invasion and occupation of Ukraine appear less hypocritical.
More importantly, the United States has called out Israel for its various illegal actions in the past. When Israel invaded Lebanon in retaliation for a terrorist attack in March 1978, the White House promptly condemned it, and the Carter administration threatened to cut military aid to Israel on account of the latter’s illegal use of US cluster bombs in an offensive operation. Additionally, the United States sponsored UN Security Council Resolution 425, which called on the Israelis to withdraw from Lebanon; they did.
The Israeli bombing of Iraq’s nuclear reactor at Osirak in June 1981 prompted President Ronald Reagan to request a congressional investigation, support a UN Security Council Resolution condemning the bombing, and temporarily suspend a shipment of F-15s to Israel. Israel’s annexation of the Golan Heights in December 1981 led Reagan to temporarily suspend the US-Israeli Memorandum of Understanding on strategic cooperation. In 1991, President George H. W. Bush withheld loan guarantees from Israel on the condition that they would only be released if Tel Aviv ceased its settlement construction in Gaza and the West Bank and entered the peace process with the Palestinians.
While Bush’s action seemingly cost him nearly a quarter of his Jewish support, he had far less of that to begin with than Biden does. Furthermore, the other major demographic that arguably cares the most about Israel — evangelical Christians — is highly unlikely to vote for Biden anyway.
This window of opportunity has two major components: Arab-Israeli relations and domestic Israeli unrest — and both place time limits on the window.
First, Israeli attempts to shore up relations with the Sunni Arab states in hopes of creating a regional coalition against Iran and its proxies are a significant determining regional factor in this window of opportunity. The Abraham Accords established the precedent that some Arab states would make peace with Israel without requiring any changes in the plight of the Palestinian people or their land, which used to be an article of faith in Arab politics. Gone are the days of “land for peace.” Now, Israel can have peace in exchange for economic agreements and American weapons systems and guarantees.
Biden has, understandably, not renounced the Accords but the precedent remains, and the more Arab states that make peace with Israel without requiring a change in Israeli policy toward Palestine, the less pressure there is on Israel to negotiate with Palestine. Indeed, the reported Saudi requirements for peace with Israel require precious few concessions from Tel Aviv, which already has a long history of de facto relations with Riyadh. However, formal recognition seems to be a ways off.
Second, recent Israeli violence against Palestinians provides a suitable pretext for the United States to recognize the State of Palestine as a means of signaling its displeasure with Israeli policy. This will be critical to avoiding significant domestic political setbacks. Both abuses against Palestinians and Netanyahu’s judicial overhaul attempts have generated significant debate among American Jews, a critical component of US domestic support for Tel Aviv.
Biden campaigned on a human-rights-centered foreign policy, a promise on which he has largely failed to deliver. Nowhere is this clearer than in his continued steadfast support for Israel at the expense of Palestinian rights. Recognizing Palestine and pressuring Israel to abide by international law would be a tremendous means of course correction.
THE RISKS OF RECOGNITION
Recognizing Palestine comes with certain risks. The first is Israel’s reaction and a potential increase of violence in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territories. The Biden administration officially recognizing Palestine would almost certainly lead to an upsurge of violence but that violence seems more likely to come from Israel, where there has been an increase in violence already, than from Palestine. To prevent Palestinian violence, Washington could make it clear to the Palestinian Authority that any violence against Israel will result in the revocation of US recognition.
The second risk is Jordan’s reaction. While recognizing Palestine and acting in concert with most UN members will likely be welcomed by Jordan, with whom the United States has strong diplomatic relations, the questions of Jerusalem and possession of the West Bank are trickier. As the host to approximately 2 million registered Palestinian refugees, Jordan is a key stakeholder in the Israel-Palestine peace process. The Biden administration would need the Kingdom’s help navigating recognition and balancing regional reactions.
SEIZING THE MOMENT?
From a foreign policy standpoint, then, the Biden administration has a significant window of opportunity in which to recognize Palestine and pressure Israel to act in accordance with international law. It’s high time for the United States to acknowledge that being pro-Israel does not translate into complicity in human rights abuses against Palestinians. However, due to the presumed domestic costs, the White House is unlikely to take such a step.
Be that as it may, it is critically important to note when such strategic opportunities arise — and when the administration opts to ignore them.
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.