America’s Approach to Palestine: A Story of Ambiguity

One prominent international conflict that has wrecked our world, since what may feel like the dawn of time, is the Israel-Palestine conundrum. The United States of America is no stranger to such tensions and has found its targeted policies shrouded in mounting international concern, particularly those enacted or alluded to by the previously headed Trump administration. The recently sworn-in President Joe Biden is already sending big waves into the endless controversy, making it more relevant than ever to explore the plus points and shortcomings of both, the Trump and Biden approach to Palestine in particular.

But First, a Much-Needed Brush-Up

Many of us are familiar with the approach of the US towards Palestine and Israel the same way one is capable of separating wisps of vapour in clouds: with vague difficulty.

The decades-long conflict between the two lies in their competing claims to the Holy Land, with several disputes specifically over Jerusalem, security, Palestinian refugees, and borders. There has been surmounting worry over the West Bank and Gaza regions, in particular, two sites of immense violence. Increasing numbers of Jews began moving to Ottoman Palestine—a predominately Arab region—following the 1896 publication of Theodor Herzl’s ‘The Jewish State’, which promoted the idea of a haven for Jews in their ancient homeland to escape anti-Semitism in Europe. The migration accelerated after the holocaust during World War II, in which Nazi Germany killed six million Jews[1]. In 1947, the UN General Assembly touted the idea of two states in Palestine; one for the Jewish populace and one for the Arabs. However, shortly after this well-intentioned precipice, the Jewish community in Palestine declared Israel independent, something that immediately prompted a war launched by the neighbouring Arab states.[2]

Generally speaking, Arabs in Palestine consider Jews as a population that stole their homeland from them with assistance from Western nations - the United States and the United Kingdom[3].

The United States has indeed historically made it evident that they are a strong supporter of Israeli interests, but have opted to project a notion of pragmatic diplomacy, walking the thin line of competing claims. The US policy towards the Palestinians focused on encouraging a peaceful resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, countering Palestinian terrorist groups, and aiding Palestinian goals on governance and economic development. Since then, Congress has committed more than $5 billion in bilateral aid to the Palestinians, who rely heavily on donor support. However, in recent years, there is an evident, explicit tilt in policy to one that vocally supports Israeli interests, sparking outrage worldwide.[4]

The Trump Administration

The Trump administration’s approach to Palestine has been, for the most part, far more inflammatory than its predecessors. In 2018, the administration cut Palestinian funding and closed the Palestine Liberalisation Organisation, originally meant to permit a Palestinian Authority (PA) to exercise limited rule over Gaza and specified areas of the West Bank, subject to overarching Israeli military administration that dates back to the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. These two reforms were followed by the merging of the US consulate general in Jerusalem (which had dealt independently with the Palestinians for decades) into a single diplomatic mission with the U.S. embassy to Israel.[5]

All these tangible changes in US-led Palestine policy were accompanied by the US taking advantage of its soft powers in the global political sphere, undermining Palestine’s position and stake to claim both, compensation for the loss sustained at the hands of Israel and Iran alongside the Holy Land and border disputes. This was done in one fell-swoop; in 2017, then-president Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and transfer the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem (in May 2018).[6] Additionally, Mr Trump ended Washington’s opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, though he did not support Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s talk of territorial annexation. It is worth noting that the US did appear to go out of its way to form an informal coalition with Saudi Arabia, UAE, and Bahrain to stand with Israel against Iran. The unfortunate result of this is that Palestine was placed under international pressure to bow down to pro-Israel positions that went directly against their interests.[7] This is remarkably unfair, to use almost juvenile terms, considering how Palestine, for a long time, went relatively unrepresented in global forums and could not hence advocate for their interests in the way that Israel may have, since the two were formed in highly distinctive ways that inevitably led to an inequality of opportunity and of the outcome.[8] What all these actions truly accomplished was to deepen the divide that previously existed and exacerbate the humanitarian crises that plagued (and continue to plague) the area around Gaza and the West Bank, likely making it even more difficult to establish peace in the region.[9]

The Biden Administration

Whether as a publicity stunt to warm the democratic party to his presidency or the product of genuine concern for the region, Biden has fastened what seems to be a rapid retreat from the Trump administration’s hasty legitimisation of the Israel-Palestine status quo. The administration has decided to resume American aid to Palestine, as announced in a speech back in January.[10] This speech, made by the acting US ambassador to the United Nations, Richard Mills, also confirmed support for a “mutually agreed, two-state solution” between Israel and the Palestinians, “in which Israel lives in peace and security, alongside a viable Palestinian state.”[11]

This is something that is part of a broader aim to re-establish diplomatic relations and to retreat to the more traditional diplomatic position, the US has always taken. However, it is worth noting that the policy was never really very effective anyways; the conflict was rarely at the top of the administration’s foreign policy lists and American assistance or input was proven to be fairly negligible at best and actively harming at worst.[12]

So naturally, the question arises; Will the present administration’s policies have any effect on the region at all? Well, the move was popular among Palestinian officials, many of whom saw it as a welcome towards restoring US-Palestine relations.[13] However, Biden is also more openly centrist than some of his peers, and the same January speech that was applauded by many also contained statements like; “the US will maintain its steadfast support for Israel” and “will continue its longstanding policy of opposing one-sided resolutions and other actions in international bodies that unfairly single out Israel.”[14]

Only time will tell how effective the new administration’s turn of the face will be and how far, in either direction, will they go. One thing is for certain that the pragmatic approach of the US, to the Israel-Palestine conflict, something wholly dependent on the interests of whoever is in power at a certain time, has rarely worked out in Palestine’s favour. The region needs more than ambiguous political ambivalence, and one can only wait to see what the future holds.

[1] Kali Robinson, What Is U.S. Policy on the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict? February 11, 2021, [2] Id. [3] Id. [4] Id. [5] Jim Zanotti,The Palestinians: Background and U.S. Relations, Congressional Research Service, November 21, 2018 [6] Id. [7] Rashid Khalidi, No deal: why Trump’s plan for Palestine will only create more conflict, The Guardian, January 30, 2020 [8] Id. [9] Dan Tschirgi,TRUMP AND PALESTINE: THE CROWNING OF AN AMERICAN APPROACH, 50 UNISCI 53 (2019). [10] Remarks at a UN Security Council Open Debate on the Situation in the Middle East (via VTC), United States Mission to the United Nations, January 26, 2021 [11] Id. [12] Supra note 5. [13] Michael Crowley, Biden Will Restore U.S. Relations With Palestinians, Reversing Trump Cutoff, New York Times, January 26, 2021 [14] Supra note 10.

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