Over the past four years, Trump made numerous controversial decisions, all to Israel’s presumed benefit: recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and moving the U.S. embassy there, cutting U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority, and presenting a peace plan that would allow Israel to annex nearly one-third of the West Bank and every Israeli settlement there.
Given the Trump administration’s departure from decades of U.S. policy toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, what will the next U.S. administration do? The Biden administration might seek to revert to the more traditional, bipartisan approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but this may no longer be possible. Major changes in the United States and in Israel-Palestine preclude a return to “business as usual.”
U.S. views on Israel and Palestine have shifted
Bipartisanship used to be a central feature of the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but now views about the conflict increasingly are divided along party lines. Public opinion surveys conducted in 2019 by Gallup and the Pew Research Center show that Democrats, particularly progressives, express increasing sympathy toward Palestinians. Compared to Republicans, significantly fewer Democrats have a favorable view of the Israeli government, even though a majority of supporters of both parties still feel positively toward Israel.
Republicans have been claiming that Democrats don’t support Israel. In fact, Democrats do support Israel, but they don’t condone unconditional U.S. support for controversial Israeli policies like settlement building — in one survey, 56 percent of Democrats supported sanctioning Israel for continued settlement expansion. In another survey, 82 percent of Democrats said they want the U.S. to take an evenhanded approach to the conflict.
In a February Gallup poll, 70 percent of Democrats (vs. 44 percent of Republicans) continue to support the creation of a Palestinian state alongside Israel. But surveys also indicate Americans are more open to a one-state solution with equal rights for all. This idea was once politically taboo because it would mean the end of Israel’s identity as a Jewish state.
The Democratic Party is still a long way from embracing such a proposal. Its leadership is still composed of pro-Israel stalwarts, like president-elect Joe Biden (whose long-running support for Israel is “deeply personal”) and Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.). But pressure from grass roots supporters and from prominent progressives like Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) may gradually move the party further left, or impose political costs for adhering to conventional pro-Israel positions.
While the Democratic Party has become slightly more critical of Israel, the Republican Party has become staunchly supportive, largely due to the growing influence of conservative evangelical Christians, for whom supporting Israel is a religious conviction. This makes U.S. policy toward the Israel-Palestine conflict increasingly contentious domestically.
The Republican Party‘s effort to turn American support for Israel into a wedge issue has further politicized U.S. policy on Israeli-Palestinian issues. It may now prove difficult, if not impossible, for Biden to restore any bipartisan consensus — except when it comes to ensuring Israel’s security, where Biden’s foreign policy plan promises “an ironclad commitment.”
The environment in Israel-Palestine has changed
Trump and President Barack Obama each made resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority as they took office. Biden is unlikely to do this. He might instead focus on preserving the future possibility of a two-state solution, an outcome he has long supported. Biden is likely to oppose formal Israeli annexation of large parts of the West Bank, but will he try to stop Israel’s continued de facto annexation of territory in the West Bank? Biden will surely remember the pushback when Obama demanded that Israel freeze its settlement building. Netanyahu resisted, and the U.S. Congress complained.
After four years of U.S. permission to expand settlements — which the Trump administration deemed to not be illegal under international law — Israel is likely to object strongly to any pressure from the Biden administration. And despite his opposition to settlement expansion, Biden is unlikely to condition U.S. aid to Israel, a stipulation he called last year a “gigantic mistake.”
But resurrecting an Israeli-Palestinian peace process in 2021 would also prove difficult for the Biden administration. Opinion polls suggest many on both sides believe such talks would be doomed to fail. Many Israelis and Palestinians see negotiations as a sign of weakness or even appeasement and prefer forceful and coercive approaches. The failure of both of Obama’s efforts to make peace (in 2009-2010 and 2013-2014) could well serve as a cautionary lesson for Biden.
Nevertheless, the Biden administration may seek to re-engage with the Palestinian leadership, who severed all contact with the Trump administration earlier this year. Vice president-elect Kamala D. Harris last month suggested the U.S. would “reopen the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem and work to reopen the PLO mission in Washington.” Biden and Harris have also called for restoring U.S. economic and humanitarian aid to Palestinians, which the Trump administration cut.
The Biden administration may be able to repair the damage done to U.S.-Palestinian relations over the past four years, and reclaim Washington’s traditional role as a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians. This could help prevent or shorten the next escalation of Israeli-Palestinian violence. But it probably won’t end the conflict or change the prevailing one-state reality in Israel-Palestine, a reality that is likely to make U.S. policy toward Israel even more controversial in the years ahead.
Jeremy Pressman is an associate professor of political science and director of Middle East Studies at the University of Connecticut, and co-director of the Crowd Counting Consortium. He is author of “The sword is not enough: Arabs, Israelis and the limits of military force” (Manchester University Press, 2020).
Dov Waxman is a professor at the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), where he holds the Rosalinde and Arthur Gilbert Foundation Chair in Israel Studies, and director of the UCLA Y&S Nazarian Center for Israel Studies. His most recent book is “The Israeli-Palestinian Conflict: What Everyone Needs to Know” (Oxford University Press, 2019).