Biden’s win good for Abbas but may not alter Palestinian reality


Osama al Sharif

Four years of Donald Trump’s presidency has been a boon to Israel’s right-wing government under Benyamin Netanyahu and a curse for the Palestinians, in particular President Mahmoud Abbas. Trump had vowed to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in an unconventional manner. His son-in-law, Jared Kushner, put together a plan that was embraced by Netanyahu and rebuffed by the Palestinians. It gave little to the Palestinians; separate enclaves that would constitute an entity that they can call a state. It disregarded the fate of millions of refugees, East Jerusalem, genuine sovereignty and recognised tens of Jewish settlements in the West Bank as legally part of Israel.

Abbas, one of the architects of the Oslo Accords, severed ties with the US and last May he suspended security coordination with Israel as Netanyahu came close to announcing formal annexation of major parts of the West Bank. The Palestinian Authority (PA) almost collapsed as it battled the coronavirus pandemic as well as a failing economy. Its coffers, having refused tax money collected on its behalf by Israel, was nearly empty.

Politically, Abbas had become more isolated as Arab countries announced they were normalising ties with Israel. A second term for Trump was almost assured meaning that the Palestinians would see his plan for peace gaining traction. But then the unexpected happened; Democratic candidate Joe Biden won the US presidential elections. The president-elect had vowed to back the two-state solution and restore ties with the Palestinians. Abbas celebrated while a stunned Netanyahu took his time before calling to congratulate Biden. Trump’s regional agenda had reached a dead end; or so Abbas thinks.

It is true that Biden will try to revert to a pre-Trump, bi-partisan, multilateral foreign policy approach, especially concerning the Israel-Palestinian struggle. He will reopen the PLO’s office in Washington and restore financial aid to the Palestinians. He is likely to reverse Trump’s move to defund UNRWA. We will see a more balanced take on the two-state solution, which continues to be backed by a majority of countries. While he is expected to reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem, he will not reverse Trump’s controversial decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and move its embassy from Tel Aviv. That is now water under the bridge.

Abbas, who last week resumed coordination with Israel after receiving a letter that reaffirmed Israel’s commitments to past agreements, should be weary of Biden’s victory. There is no going back to the status quo ante. Geopolitically things have changed. For one, Israel’s avarice for building more illegal settlements, while putting formal annexation on hold, will not be checked. In fact, Netanyahu has accelerated the rate of settlement building and eviction of Palestinians in East Jerusalem in the past few weeks; rendering the letter given to Abbas about committing to previous agreements irrelevant. A defiant Netanyahu is unlikely to slow the pace of settlement building in the near future.

Biden is unlikely to seek a clash with Netanyahu in the early days of his administration. He will be focused on combating the spread of the coronavirus in the United States, which in the past weeks have gotten out of control.

A new president in the White House is likely to slow the drive of more Arab and Muslim countries opting to normalise ties with Israel but he will not stop it. This is a new normal in Israel-Arab ties. Biden’s desire to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal will strengthen the Arab-Israeli alliance.

There are at least two other factors that Abbas must consider. The first is the effect of resuming coordination with Israel on the reconciliation efforts between Fateh and Hamas. The latter has criticised Abbas’ decision. Without genuine unity the Palestinian stand will remain weak. It is unlikely that reconciliation will take place any time soon; casting doubts over the possibility of holding legislative and presidential elections in the near future.

The second factor has to do with the often toxic Israeli politics. Polls show that Netanyahu’s Likud is losing support and that a majority of Israelis are backing an even more far-right parties. The growing influence of extremist settlers cannot be discounted. A decade of Netanyahu rule has weakened centrist and leftist parties. The next Israeli leader may well be more extreme than Netanyahu.

Against such prospects Abbas and his aides must learn to adapt to a new geopolitical reality. Yes Biden’s win will restore some badly needed balance to US policy in the region but it is unlikely to make the two-state solution a reality. The slow consumption of Palestinian lands will continue for a while and US pressure may be overrated. What the Palestinians need is real unity; a goal that remains elusive and the lack of which continues to discredit its leadership.

Osama Al Sharif is a journalist and political commentator based in Amman


Categories: Arab World, Asia, Israel, Palestine

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