Back when Joe Biden was vice-president under US president Barack Obama, he told Jewish-American lobbyists that Israel must stop building settlements in areas designated for a future Palestinian state.
“Israel has to work toward a two-state solution,” he told the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) in 2009. “You’re not going to like my saying this, but not build more settlements, dismantle existing outposts and allow the Palestinians freedom of movement.”
A year later, just as Biden was visiting Israel to kick-start Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced plans to construct new settlement housing in East Jerusalem. The embarrassment – Biden was left speechless on the subject – helped chill US-Israel relations for the duration of the Obama-Biden administration.
Fast-forward and the now-President Biden is faced with a raging, if lopsided, war between Israel and Hamas, the Palestinian Islamist party that rules the Gaza Strip. He wants the conflagration to stop. Otherwise does he have a plan to resolve any underlying issues that have fueled a 100-year conflict?
I don’t think so. That’s because he would have to do something about Israel’s settlement policy and physical expansion beyond borders set in 1967. All such actions have crippled hopes for what US officials used to call a “viable” Palestinian state.
Biden doesn’t want to touch the issue with a ten-foot policy pole.
In this context, it is worth remembering how this latest outbreak of hostilities got started. It began with a conflict between Israeli settlers and Palestinians over property in East Jerusalem, which, along with the West Bank, is part of territory Israel conquered in the 1967 Middle East War.
Israeli settlers in the neighborhood called Sheikh Jarrah wanted Palestinians evicted in order to expand their little enclave – a sample of a process Biden and Obama tried to halt. Street protests, police confrontations and violence at Al-Aqsa Mosque preceded the ongoing rocket assaults by Hamas.
In response, Biden stuck to predictable give-peace-a-chance platitudes (though he has now finally uttered the word “ceasefire”). He called for “de-escalation” and “calm” and endorsed Israel’s “right to defend itself.” All are ritualized American responses when Israel, the top American Middle East ally, enters a shooting war.
However, on Sunday Biden’s United Nations ambassador, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, addressed the settlement elephant in the room. She told the UN Security Council that Israel must prevent “the evictions, including in East Jerusalem, the demolitions and the construction of settlements east of the 1967 lines.”
Missing was any notion that would give her comment teeth. Unlike two US allies on the Security Council, Thomas-Greenfield said nothing about the legality of settlements. UK Ambassador Barbara Woodward flatly declared, “Settlements are illegal under international law.” So did France’s UN ambassador, Nicolas de Rivière. The United States dropped that formulation more than 40 years ago, and Biden appears committed to staying the course.
Declaring the settlements illegal would open Israel to legal action in international courts and intensify calls to boycott Israel economically. Human Rights Watch recently declared Israeli expansion a form of apartheid.
In any case, since 1967, no American administration has effectively pressed Israel to halt its settlement project. The US came closest to it during the George H W Bush administration. Under threat from Bush of losing loan guarantees for immigrant housing, Israel called a limited moratorium on building.
Since then, settlement expansion has grown apace, up to the point where president Donald Trump said Israel could annex the land on which they stand.
During his first hundred days in office, Biden has canceled many Trump policies. Not that one.
He has other foreign-policy priorities and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is way down the list. He wants to deal with China, Russia, climate change, a new nuclear deal with Iran. For Biden and his team, “calm” in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute means “disregard.”
He sent an envoy to Israel to discuss the ceasefire, but outsourced detailed negotiations to Egypt. Egypt is trying to forge a face-saving solution that lets each side declare victory, a common solution to the half-dozen wars involving Gaza since 1987.
In this outbreak, Israeli bombs on Gaza have killed at least 200 Palestinians, leveled skyscrapers and crippled Gaza’s rickety infrastructure. Ten Israelis have died in the rocket barrages launched from Gaza.
Confrontations between Palestinians and Israeli soldiers in the West Bank and street fights between Palestinian Israelis and Jews inside Israel have also led to scattered deaths.
The end game will probably be something like this: When Netanyahu’s generals say Hamas’ military capability has been significantly “degraded,” he will decide the war is over. Israel describes its operations against Gaza in military slang as “mowing the lawn.” Hamas will accept an outcome that suggests it has defended Al-Aqsa, even at great sacrifice, and try to rebuild its military.
For Biden, that would be a win: a ceasefire that doesn’t force him to take a stand. The settlement issue and the two-state solution can fade from view, at least until the next eviction.