The Wall Street Journal on Monday published an exit interview with President Joe Biden’s outgoing ambassador to Israel, Tom Nides, in which he called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to slow the extremist Israeli government’s judicial overhaul plan and trumpeted efforts to improve conditions in the occupied Palestinian territories.
Nides said that the US role in Israel remains indispensable. “I think most Israelis want the United States to be in their business,” he told the Journal.
But, with the ambassador’s planned departure coming just after the Israeli military’s siege of the West Bank city of Jenin, the comments revealed something more candid about the Biden administration’s emphasis there. The focus: relatively minor economic development initiatives for Palestinians without a bigger plan, or even a stronger stance on how to protect Palestinian rights.
“No, I’m not getting a Nobel Peace Prize in the next seven days,” Nides said in the interview. “But I do think I can look back and say that I’ve done things that have made life just a little bit easier and better for the average Palestinian.” His only mention of Jenin appeared to be about a power plant he had worked on getting for the city.
The interview shows how unambitious Biden’s approach is to a conflict that previous US administrations have invested significant diplomatic capital in resolving.
Nides, who is active on social media and has a big personality in media encounters, offers a remarkable snapshot of how the Biden administration sees Israel and Palestine. As he put it, “I think the important thing for the security state of Israel is to keep things calm in the West Bank.”
Absent a political horizon for Palestinians, what Nides and the Biden administration envision is not possible. The US would need to articulate the consequences that its close partner Israel would face for the ongoing occupation, or else there will be more sieges of cities like Jenin, there will be more wars between Gaza and Israel, and the underlying issues of the Israel-Palestine conflict will be left unaddressed.
Biden’s two-plus years of Middle East policy, explained
Israel’s military occupation has continued since 1967, and the longstanding US policy of achieving an independent Palestinian state has been in formaldehyde since the Obama years. “I did not come here to negotiate a two-state solution. I came here to do practical things,” Nides told the Journal.
Shabbat Shalom with the soldiers of the @IDF! pic.twitter.com/o0qLCTfLHR— Ambassador Tom Nides (@USAmbIsrael) June 30, 2023
So far in the Biden presidency, competition with China has been the primary focus. And since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Europe has sucked away much of US diplomatic attention. It means that US leadership in the Middle East has diminished.
Still, Biden’s inner circle has taken the time in recent months to lay out what it sees as the pillars of its Middle East policy.
The White House’s Middle East coordinator, Brett McGurk, has described it as “back to basics.” It doesn’t involve a Middle East peace plan, in a departure from previous administrations. The major tenets are working with Israel to counter Iran, gently urging Israel to rein in the most extreme members of Netanyahu’s government, and offering Palestinians so-called economic peace through development aid. The administration has also touted a new regional meeting platform called the Negev Forum that brings together Israel and the Arab states it has normalized relations with, including Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates.
Though Biden officials have described values as essential to US foreign policy, they have not articulated the role of human rights in the US approach to Israel and Palestine.
When Secretary of State Antony Blinken addressed the Council on Foreign Relations in late June, he described the situation glibly. “We’ve told our friends and allies in Israel that if there’s a fire burning in their backyard, it’s going to be a lot tougher, if not impossible, to actually both deepen the existing agreements [with Arab states] as well as to expand them to include potentially Saudi Arabia,” Blinken said. The idea of Palestine just being Israel’s backyard tacitly suggested that the US in essence sees the occupied territory as part of Israel — and it certainly did not indicate any action beyond the maintenance of the status quo.
At the same time, White House officials have cheered a small maritime agreement between Israel and Lebanon, two countries that do not have diplomatic relations. This is a minuscule accomplishment considering the stakes of the region. It also shows how the Biden administration has focused on small practicalities, rather than using the tens of billions of dollars and security guarantees it has given Israel as leverage to make significant steps toward policies that acknowledge the reality of the ongoing occupation.
The problem with Biden not going big
In his interview with the Journal, Nides emphasized the promise of economic peace.
Under Biden, the US has pushed for “extending the opening hours of the vital Allenby Bridge Crossing between the West Bank and Jordan; 4G phone service for West Bank Palestinians; $100 million in promised aid for health services for Palestinians; getting Israeli approval for Palestinians to develop a small gas field off the Gaza Strip; and working on getting a new power plant for the West Bank city of Jenin working,” according to the Journal.
Those are positive developments; economic officers in the embassy deserve credit for them. But they are small accomplishments for an ambassador.
To bring about a comprehensive peace between Israelis and Palestinians without addressing the fundamental issues regarding disenfranchisement and political rights in occupied Palestine is just “recycling old ideas,” as analysts Zaha Hassan and Daniel Levy recently noted. (Disclosure: I worked alongside Levy at think tanks from 2009 to 2012.)
Levy and Hassan argue that Biden’s team has pushed for economic peace at a particularly incongruous time, in which leading human rights groups in Palestine, Israel, and internationally have documented how Israeli policies constitute apartheid. A growing global movement is calling out Israel as an apartheid state. For Palestinians, economic initiatives are wholly insufficient in changing the political anguish. “If your counterpoint to the strengthening ‘end apartheid’ frame is getting Palestinians 4G, guess who’s gonna win that over time?” Levy, the executive director of the US/Middle East Project, told me.
Levy is concerned about how weak the Biden administration’s ambition is. The economic peace argument will not resonate with a new generation of Palestinians in the West Bank, lacking in political opportunity.
All the while, the Middle East is resolving its own issues, which is not necessarily bad given the US track record of hugging Israel and launching endless military interventions, while also moving closer to China. Indeed, Beijing brokered the most significant diplomatic deal in the Middle East since Biden took office, bringing together adversaries Saudi Arabia and Iran. “The region is moving on, and it’s trying to sort out more of its affairs,” Levy explains. But the US remains trapped in an old bubble of its making on Israel-Palestine.
Supporters of the Biden administration’s approach say that the big things aren’t possible now, so the effort needs to be on the economic as well as Israel’s integration into the Arab Middle East. “Give Biden credit,” Daniel Shapiro, who served as Obama’s ambassador to Israel, wrote of Biden’s regional trip last summer. “With the crushing crises he faced upon taking office, the Middle East was never going to be a top priority.”
Shapiro told Congress in March that pushing more Arab states to normalize relations with Israel is the “one potential source of positive energy in the Israeli-Palestinian arena.” Now, he will join the State Department to work in a new role focused on Israel’s integration into the Arab world.