Yogi Berra, a famous American baseball player known for his homespun and often not understandable philosophical statements, once said: “When you come to a fork in the road, take it.” This nonsensical piece of advice comes to mind when approaching the question of how the Biden administration will deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the wider set of problems facing the Middle East. Following four years of malign policy by the outgoing Trump administration, President Biden will face numerous forks in the policy road, and the choices he makes will have a profound impact on Middle East stability and the prospects for peace.
Consider Biden’s regional agenda other than the peace process. The most pressing and impactful decision the president must make is when and how to re-enter the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), the Iran nuclear deal. There is no question Biden wants to re-enter the deal, which effectively stopped Iran’s nuclear activities until 2018 when Trump withdrew the United States. But Biden will need to decide tactically whether to enter the deal immediately, or to try to negotiate changes in the deal first – for example, replacing the “sunset” clauses with a permanent agreement; negotiating curbs on Iran’s missile program; and dealing with Iran’s aggressive actions in the region. And Biden will face the decision of whether and how to bring Israel and the Gulf Arabs into his decision-making orbit.
Biden will also face a region that remains in upheaval, with significant dysfunctionalities. Wars rage in Syria, Yemen, Sinai, and Libya; and violence threatens in Western Sahara. Egypt and Ethiopia are at loggerheads over the critical issue of water. U.S. troops remain in Iraq, Syria, and Afghanistan in what seems to be an eternal deployment. And the region itself is broken: failed or failing states, rampant human rights abuses, persistent corruption, poor governance, economic inequalities, just to name a few of the endemic problems besetting the Middle East.
To be sure, Biden will also enter office with a few assets with which to work. Israel is stronger than ever, and the U.S.-Israeli relationship continues to find ways to expand and grow. Relations with some key Arab states, for example, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates, are sound – although human rights concerns will cloud the agenda with these countries. Recent normalization agreements between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan also attest to a growing acceptance of Israel among the region’s leaders.
In this panoply of choices – forks in the policy road – Biden will face a tough decision with respect to the Israeli-Palestinian issue. By all measures, the conflict should not figure high on Biden’s agenda, and the hard reality is that the status quo appears comfortable enough for those on both sides to ensure relative stability at least for the foreseeable future. True, events can always spiral out of control, and status quos are normally inherently unstable. However, it is hard to see the Israeli-Palestinian issue working its way up Biden’s agenda.
So, what can Biden do? The easiest choice will be to pivot to conflict management and mitigation, that is, to have his administration take a number of steps that keep the underlying conflict on a low flame. This means reversing some of the Trump administration’s more malignant actions – such as cutting aid and communication channels to the Palestinians, removing the Trump “vision” from diplomatic discourse, putting Jerusalem back on the future table of negotiations, even if the U.S. embassy remains in West Jerusalem – but it also likely means paying less attention to the daily challenges that the conflict generates, for example, settlement activity, periodic violence, and the like.
The much tougher course of action for the Biden administration would be to invest political and policy capital to try to advance beyond the status quo and towards an ultimate resolution. This would certainly be my choice, but realistically, I cannot find a way to argue for it given the realities on the ground. To make this choice attractive to Biden, there are several steps that Israelis and Palestinians could, in fact should, take to induce the Biden administration to invest in peace making.
First, Israel and the Palestinians can demonstrate in concrete terms, in words and deeds, their commitment to a two state outcome. Palestinians need to take a firm stand against violence and terrorism and those who perpetrate such acts. Israel needs to cease advancing settlement plans that worsen the situation on the ground; stop evicting Palestinians from their homes to make way for settlers; stop home demolitions; and halt efforts to seal Jerusalem from the West Bank by building in Givat Hamatos, Atarot, and E-1.
I recognize this sounds stale: how many times have outsiders called on Israel to stop settlement activity, or called on the Palestinians to clamp down on violence and incitement? The problem is that Israelis and Palestinians act as though they do not want peace. And the United States and others do not hold Israel or the Palestinians accountable for their actions that undermine peace prospects. In these circumstances, it is difficult to argue that the Biden administration should become more active in the search for peace.
A second issue relates to whether the two parties are ready to re-engage on the substantive issues. If they are ready, a good place to start would be to pick up from where things left off in March 2014, the last time Israelis and Palestinians tried to advance the prospects for peace. President Obama proposed reasonable ideas at that time. Israel and the PLO can and should accept those ideas as a starting point for re-engagement.
Third, both sides need to work harder than they have until now to prepare their publics for peace. This includes arresting and prosecuting those who act outside the law to undermine the prospects for peaceful co-existence. And it means actively promoting people-to-people contacts.
These steps would mark clearly the road to peace and provide a reason for President Biden to choose that fork in the road. In a variety of forums in Washington, I have offered ideas for a Biden administration to pursue, but in good conscience, I cannot argue for them if the current situation on the ground and between the parties continues. The fork in the road leading to the possibility of a two state solution and peace needs to be clearly demarcated by the actions of Israelis and Palestinians. The time to do so is now, as President Biden takes office.