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Biden can clean up Trump's Israeli-Palestinian policy mess, but can he broker peace?

The president-elect knows only too well the failures of all the presidents who preceded him, and the hardening of positions that's occurred on both sides.
US Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Isra
Then-Vice President Joe Biden and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu sit down for dinner at the prime minister's residence in Jerusalem on March 9, 2010.David Furst / AFP - Getty Images file

In the twilight of the Trump administration, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo is traveling to the Middle East this week. On his itinerary is an expected stop that would have been unthinkable during any other U.S. administration: a visit to a settlement in the West Bank intended to legitimize Israeli claims to land that Palestinians and the international community envision for a future state.

With the same Israeli and Palestinian leaders in place today, he has no reason to believe that, if he tried where every president since Clinton has failed, the result would be any different.

It is tempting to think that when President-elect Joe Biden enters the Oval Office on Jan. 20, he will simply reset relations with the Palestinians by wiping the slate clean of such provocations. But the sad fact is that both sides are so disillusioned with the failed efforts by successive administrations to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that resolving it will take time and patience.

This was underscored by the death last week of Saeb Erekat, the Palestine Liberation Organization's chief peace negotiator. His passing, more than the ill-conceived political stunt of an outgoing secretary of state, marks the end of the Oslo era. Erekat had become the embodiment of the Palestinian commitment to a stage-by-stage process in which an independent Palestinian state would emerge to live in peace alongside the Jewish state of Israel.

The author of that approach on the Palestinian side was Mahmoud Abbas, now head of the Palestinian Authority. One of his Israeli partners, Yitzhak Rabin, was assassinated 25 years ago; the other, Shimon Peres, passed away four years ago. At 85, in poor health, Abbas will soon leave office, too. When he does, the last architect of the Oslo process will have departed.

The Oslo era began with optimism. Palestinians were first granted self-rule in Gaza and Jericho, and that autonomy was then extended to 40 percent of the West Bank while final-status negotiations took place. But then disillusionment and distrust set in on both sides as terrorism and settlement expansion overwhelmed the diplomacy.

Oslo's demise has been a long time coming. It had been on life support since the failure of Yasser Arafat, the longtime chairman of the PLO, to accept the parameters for a two-state solution put forth under President Bill Clinton in December 2000. Since then, a variety of efforts to revive it all fell short. The last Israeli-Palestinian final-status negotiations, which I oversaw for Secretary of State John Kerry, collapsed in April 2014.

Sadly, by the end of the negotiations the parties were further apart on all the issues — borders, security, refugees, Jerusalem and mutual recognition — than they had been at the beginning, nine months earlier.

Then came President Donald Trump's "Deal of the Century," announced this January, which attempted to impose a solution on the Palestinians. It was conceived without consulting them and came down on Israel's side on all the final-status issues. Not surprisingly, it was roundly rejected by the Palestinians. It was also rejected by Israel's right wing, which did not accept Trump's version of a two-state solution even though it provided for unilateral Israeli annexation of significant territory in the West Bank and all the settlements.

Biden is familiar with the hardening of positions on both sides. As vice president, he was present for all the internal deliberations over Kerry's initiative. With the same Israeli and Palestinian leaders in place today, he has no reason to believe that, if he tried where every president since Clinton has failed, the result would be any different.

With all the other pressing priorities for Biden's administration — the pandemic, the economy, China, climate change, Iran's nuclear program, etc. — a new initiative to restart Israeli-Palestinian final-status negotiations cannot be justified. And yet Biden is committed, correctly in my view, to keeping the concept of the two-state solution alive, because it remains the only way to end the conflict.

What, then, is to be done? The first priority is to repair the damage wrought by the Trump administration. Trump's "deal" should be taken off the table when he departs the White House. Relations should be restored with the PLO and the Palestinian Authority, which were severed in the wake of Trump's decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel's capital. U.S. aid to projects that provide vital support to the Palestinian people should be revived. The U.S. Embassy should stay in Jerusalem, Israel's designated capital, but Biden should declare that he also recognizes that Palestinians aspire to have the capital of their state in East Jerusalem.

Second, Biden should reassert the basic principles of U.S. policy toward resolving the conflict, some of which are enshrined in U.N. Security Council Resolution 242, which both sides have accepted. These principles include: the inadmissibility of the acquisition of territory by force; the need for Israeli withdrawal to secure and recognized borders based on the 1967 lines; condemnation of all forms of violence, terrorism and incitement; and opposition to unilateral acts, including annexation and settlement expansion.

Third, Biden's secretary of state should declare a willingness in principle to support a resumption of direct peace negotiations — moribund since 2014 — but only when both sides are ready to accept the basic parameters of a two-state solution as laid out in the Clinton Parameters and the Kerry Principles.

In the meantime, Biden should encourage a trust-building process designed to rekindle the confidence of both sides in the intentions of the other. Security cooperation needs to be restored, Israeli revenue transfers to Palestinians should be resumed, Palestinian payments to convicted terrorists should stop, and instead of settlement expansion, more West Bank territory should be transferred to Palestinian control.

Finally, Biden needs to encourage both sides to rethink their basic approaches to resolving their conflict. Pressing ahead with the recent normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel, which Trump deserves credit for cultivating, can facilitate these reassessments.

Palestinians should recognize by now that their strategy of holding up normalization with Israel until their demands are fully satisfied has failed. This comes on top of the failure of the Oslo process, the failure to isolate Israel internationally, the failure to unify their polity among competing Palestinian factions and the failure of their democratic institutions.

New approaches clearly need to be developed, starting with a reassessment of the role that Arab states that have relations with Israel — especially Jordan and Egypt — can play in helping Palestinians achieve their political objectives.

Palestinians should recognize by now that their strategy of holding up normalization with Israel until their demands are fully satisfied has failed.

On the Israeli side, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right to accede to the demand that he halt unilateral annexation of West Bank territory and settlements in return for normalization with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Sudan.

Having accepted that principle, other Arab states will want their own concessions for normalizing with Israel, whether they come in the form of a freeze on settlements, an end to housing demolitions or more territory for Palestinians in the West Bank. Israelis will then have to rethink whether they prefer expanding settlements and holding on to West Bank territory over normalization with such important Arab states as Saudi Arabia and Morocco.

In his victory speech on Nov. 7, Biden quoted a Biblical passage from Ecclesiastes, declaring that his term would be "a time to heal." In the Israeli-Palestinian arena, this is a time to sow; the time to reap will come later.