Abbas and Biden – a workable partnership?
by Neville Teller
Joe Biden knows as much about the background to the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as anyone, and more than most. Over the eight years 2008–2016 that the Obama-Biden team headed the US administration, there were two major efforts to restart the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, and Biden was heavily engaged in both. In setting them up, Washington got very close to Arab leaders in general, and Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas in particular. Washington during the Obama years advocated the two-state solution, considered Israel’s borders to be the 1948 armistice boundaries, regarded settlement activity in the West Bank as illegal, and was equivocal about Jerusalem, refusing to implement the law requiring the US to site its embassy there. There is little doubt that Abbas and the PA leadership will attempt to build on that old relationship, and are hoping that Biden will pick up where he left off, thus blocking any attempt to implement Donald Trump’s “Deal of the Century”.
During his time as US vice-president, Biden made countless trips to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, and was well aware that Abbas’s term as PA president, due to expire in January 2009, was being extended time and again. Abbas is doubtless hoping that his attempt to hold elections for the Palestinian legislature and presidency later this year will win brownie points with the new US president.
Coming into office, Barak Obama was a devout believer in the gospel of the time ‒ that the key cause of disharmony in the Middle East was the Israel-Palestinian dispute. Solve that, the doctrine maintained, and peace would follow as the night the day. Determined to build bridges with the Muslim world Obama, within days of taking office, appointed George Mitchell his “special envoy to the Middle East”, and charged him explicitly to seek a comprehensive Arab-IsraeIi peace. Step one, in accordance with the creed of the time, was obviously to broker peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
Mitchell, negotiating very skillfully with all the parties concerned, obtained the Arab League’s blessing to open negotiations, and persuaded Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to obtain the Knesset’s agreement to a 10-month freeze on all construction in the West Bank. By early March 2010 a new peace initiative seemed a done deal. On March 10, 2010 vice-president Joe Biden flew to the Middle East to inaugurate the first phase.
Then everything went wrong. Virtually as Biden emerged from the plane, Israel’s Interior Minister, Eli Yishai, leader of the Shas party, authorized final approval of a scheme to construct 1600 new housing units in what Washington considered an illegal settlement. The Obama administration was outraged. The move was seen as an insult not only to the vice-president, but to the US itself.
It was all eventually smoothed over, but to no effect. The 2010 peace initiative eventually ran into the ground. Abbas delayed coming to the table for direct talks month after month, until the 10-month building freeze drew to a close. He then demanded an extension of the freeze as the price of continuing to talk – but achieving Knesset approval to an extension was beyond even the political skills of Netanyahu.
It took three years before the Obama White House was able to renew its attempt to get the parties round the negotiating table. Biden was pretty fully involved in that effort as well.
This time the task was placed in the hands of US Secretary of State John Kerry. Kerry was notably vigorous and enthusiastic in tackling his formidable task. On the last day of April 2013, Kerry and Joe Biden hosted an Arab League delegation to obtain cover for the new effort. History records that this initiative, like its predecessor, quickly ran into the sands. It lasted barely the optimistic nine months that the negotiating teams had allowed.
Abbas, apparently appreciating that there can be no simple return to the Obama era, is signaling a change of direction. He can see that the PA’s violent reaction to the Abraham Accords and Arab-Israel normalization produced precisely no effect and, changing tack, has embarked on an attempt to mend relations with Arab nations and win the goodwill of the Biden administration.
On November 17, 2020 the PA suddenly announced that it was restoring suspended relations with Israel and resuming security coordination on the West Bank. It also resumed accepting the tax revenues which the Israeli government collects on its behalf.
Two days later, the PA returned its ambassadors to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain (they had been recalled in protest at the normalization with Israel). Then, when first Sudan and later Morocco subscribed to the Abraham Accords, the PA offered no reaction at all. Abbas doubtless calculates that the normalization process seems likely to continue whether the Palestinians like it or not, and if the PA were to withdraw its ambassadors from every Arab state that signs up, it would risk its isolation deepening even further.
Meanwhile, ahead of the transition to a new US administration, Jordan, Egypt and the PA are apparently preparing the ground for a common stand on resolving the Palestine-Israel issue. A trilateral meeting in Cairo on December 19 involving the foreign ministers of the three countries resulted in a joint statement calling for the resumption of peace negotiations.
PA foreign minister Riyad al-Malki said that the PA is ready to cooperate with the new US president to achieve a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital, on territory captured by Israel during the 1967 war. He added that coordination with Cairo and Amman would establish a “starting point” in dealing with the incoming Biden administration in Washington. Al-Malki urged Israel to return to the negotiating table for peace talks based on the two-state solution. Significantly, perhaps, during a conversation with King Abdullah in November, president-elect Joe Biden reaffirmed his support for the two-state solution.
Can Abbas, backed by Jordan and Egypt, forge an effective working relationship with the new US president ‒ and if so, what might be the outcome?
Neville Teller is read Modern History at Oxford University. He has written about the Middle East for more than 30 years and has published five books on the subject, and blogs at a Mid East Journal. His latest book is “Trump and the Holy Land: 2016-2020”.
He was made an MBE – The Most Excellent Order of the British Empire – in 2006 “for services to broadcasting and to drama.”