President Biden and his team have returned from the first Middle East visit of his presidency, and the takeaways for J Street are mixed.
First, the good news — and there is some.
It’s more than welcome for J Street to see the President reaffirm his commitment to a two-state solution with borders based on the pre-1967 Green Line with land swaps. This effectively rolls back the position taken by the Trump administration and returns the US to alignment with the rest of the world. It was also notable that Israel’s new Prime Minister Yair Lapid stated publicly his belief that a “two-state solution is a guarantee for a strong, democratic Israel.” These are words not heard from an Israeli leader in nearly 14 years.
J Street also welcomes the President’s strong reaffirmation of the US-Israel relationship. His words represent a vital push back against the argument that critiques of Israeli policy and actions by members of the Democratic Party are at odds with his Party’s deep commitment to Israel’s security.
There were a number of welcome tangible announcements on the trip as well, including financial assistance to hospitals in East Jerusalem and to the UN relief agency that provides health and education services to Palestinians. Notably, the President visited East Jerusalem unaccompanied by Israeli officials and did not fly the Israeli flag on American vehicles during the visit — both important symbolic affirmations of Palestinian interests in East Jerusalem and the administration’s view that the status of the city remains to be resolved.
Palestinian access to 4G broadband will expand, crossings at the Allenby Bridge will be easier for Palestinians and creative ideas for bringing clean energy from the West Bank to Gaza to power water and sewage treatment are being advanced. These are all incremental but positive steps to improve daily life for Palestinians.
Further steps toward Israel’s integration with its neighbors are also very welcome. J Street has — since its founding — believed that the Arab Peace Initiative provides a route toward resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by offering full normalization of relations with Israel by all Arab countries as incentive for establishing a Palestinian state. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia made clear on this visit that this remains their preferred framework for broader peace, and that position was reaffirmed in the joint declaration the President signed in Jeddah.
All that said, the President’s visit and the messages the administration has delivered publicly on the conflict over the past 18 months fall well short of the minimum needed from fruitful US leadership if we hope to see the actual conflict Israel faces resolved.
At every step of the process of normalization, the United States needs to ensure that the Palestinians are a full and equal partner in the emerging regional architecture. Only with full Palestinian participation can regional integration catalyze progress toward Palestinian statehood and comprehensive peace, rather than serve as an end-run around it.
American opposition to deepening occupation and de facto annexation needs to be louder and bolder. There is no reason to shy away from using the term “occupation” to describe what is happening on the West Bank and in Gaza. The President and his team must be explicit about American opposition to settlement expansion, home demolitions, evictions and settler violence.
In particular, they must work to prevent the forced displacement of approximately 1,000 Palestinians from the Masafer Yatta region of the occupied West Bank, as J Street and other organizations collectively representing millions of Jewish Americans implored the President to do in a letter last week.
There must be clearer accountability for such acts as the killing of the Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu-Akleh. The efforts by Israel to label Palestinian NGOs as terrorist organizations must be publicly rebuked by the US as they are now being by European governments. The US must overcome Israeli resistance to the re-opening of its consulate dealing with Palestinians in Jerusalem.
And, regionally, the most important act of American diplomacy to ratchet down conflict and tension would be to re-enter the Iran nuclear agreement. It was good to see the President reaffirm his view that the surest path to preventing Iran from ever getting a nuclear weapon is through diplomacy. It was equally good to hear the signals from the UAE that it is open to diplomatic engagement with Tehran and to “rebuilding bridges.”
The steps necessary to re-enter the agreement may have a perceived domestic political risk in the eyes of the Biden team, but Israeli security leaders, global non-proliferation experts and now perhaps even the UAE are signaling that the world was a safer and better place with the deal (known as the JCPOA) in place prior to Donald Trump breaking it four years ago.
In short, while the President took some limited steps in the right direction, his trip was far from the visit that J Street would have advocated for. The dire state of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict demands bolder action and leadership. Kicking the can down the road will come to be seen as a tragic mistake if and when the situation unravels.
Unending occupation and de facto annexation without meaningful American opposition is facilitating the loss not only of hope but of the practical possibility of Palestinian statehood. The emerging one-state reality is not a solution to the conflict, as some on the right and left may theorize, but rather an accelerant for deepening despair and heightened tension and violence.
It will take strong leadership — American, Israeli and Palestinian — to change course away from this emerging one-state nightmare, which undermines Israel’s future, the Palestinians’ quest for freedom and self-determination, and American interests.
At J Street, we remain committed to pressing for the bold, transformative and responsible steps that we know are needed.