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Biden's early Israel policies show he won't be much better for Palestinians than Trump

His steps to rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council and restore aid to refugees are welcome. But they don't change the oppressive status quo.
Joseph Biden, Mahmoud Abbas
Then-Vice President Joe Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas before delivering a statement after their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 10, 2010.Bernat Armangue / AP file

Palestinians understood that a Biden administration would not usher in meaningful change for U.S.-Palestinian policy, and the president’s first month in office is already vindicating their cynicism. Donald Trump may have been more brazen in tone and unique for the devastating pace of unilateral policies that advanced Israel’s interests during his presidency, but he didn’t change the bottom line of what United States’ policy has ensured for seven-plus decades: the foreclosure of meaningful Palestinian futures.

Trump’s legacy includes further shrinking public space to discuss U.S. Middle East policy, yet another trend the Biden administration appears to be continuing.

Notwithstanding several early steps that distinguish him from his predecessor, President Joe Biden promises to continue this legacy. It’s true that the new administration intends to reinstate critical U.S. humanitarian aid to Palestinian refugees and will reopen the PLO mission office in Washington, D.C. Just Monday, it announced that it will rejoin the U.N. Human Rights Council, from which the Trump administration withdrew mostly in protest of its scrutiny of Israel.

But none of these policies, welcome though they are, will challenge the oppressive status quo sustained by the United States. Worse still, the Biden administration will uphold several of the Trump administration’s most damning precedents.

The new secretary of state, Antony Blinken, has made clear that the administration will not move the U.S. Embassy from Jerusalem back to Tel Aviv; it will maintain, and celebrate, Israel’s normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan without ensuring a single enduring concession for the Palestinians; and it will continue to provide Israel with unconditional military support in the amount of $3.8 billion annually — a precedent established by Biden’s former boss, President Barack Obama.

Late last week, the Biden administration also expressed “serious concerns” over the International Criminal Court’s effort to exercise jurisdiction over Israeli officials to prosecute them for war crimes, and is even considering maintaining the Trump administration’s sanctions on the court’s leading personnel.

The assurance of Israeli military prowess and regional dominance is a cornerstone of U.S. Middle East policy, which clearly aims to protect the U.S. national interest in unfettered access to geopolitical resources, consumer markets, lucrative arms deals and neoliberal economies run by police states at the expense of democratic governance across the region.

Successive U.S. administrations have rejected this critical analysis, insisting that their concern is about protecting the so-called only democracy in the region, as well as combating anti-Semitism by sustaining Israel’s military prowess, backed by nuclear power, and helping it avoid the reach of international accountability. It’s a logic that crumbles merely by laying out this reality.

One of the most pressing challenges impeding a better reality for the Palestinians right now is the ability to have this debate at all. Trump’s legacy includes further shrinking public space to discuss U.S. Middle East policy, yet another trend the Biden administration appears to be continuing.

During his tenure, Trump increasingly equated criticism of Israel and Zionism with anti-Semitism, thus making it tantamount to punishable hate speech. His 2019 executive order requires federal agencies investigating civil rights complaints on public campuses to use the International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance (IHRA) definition of anti-Semitism, which conflates criticism of Israel with anti-Semitism, such as where the alliance suggests that “denying the Jewish people their right to self-determination, e.g., by claiming that the existence of a State of Israel is a racist endeavor” is tantamount to anti-Semitism.

The unstated purpose of the order seems to be to chill Palestinian advocacy, going so far as to prohibit Palestinians from even naming their oppression. Everything from concluding that Israel administers an apartheid regime to naming its political system as settler-colonial or urging for the boycott, divestment and sanctions of Israel for gross human rights abuses seems to now fall under the federal definition and could result in federal funding to public institutions, primarily public universities, being rescinded.

Trump’s executive order exacerbated a trend whereby accusations of anti-Semitism have been “weaponized,” in the words of the IHRA definition’s chief author, to suppress criticism of Israel. Currently, 30 U.S. states have legislation that effectively punishes support for BDS, primarily through the denial of state contracts. The BDS movement, which takes inspiration from the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, seeks to overcome diplomatic intransigence by mobilizing grassroots opposition to Israeli policies.

Now, Biden’s State Department has just announced that it endorses the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism, thus curtailing robust public debate on one of the most consequential issues of our time.

The irony — or, perhaps, explanation — for the increasing weaponization of anti-Semitism is that a growing number of institutions, from the United Nations to the Israeli human rights organization B’Tselem have concluded that Israel oversees an apartheid regime. Israel itself passed a Jewish nation-state law in 2018 that says that only Jews have a right to self-determination on the land, declaring that Zionist settlement is essentially a constitutional obligation.

Shielding Israel and punishing any critiques of U.S. empire more broadly are the norms in the United States.

Far from combating Trump’s frontal attack on human rights advocacy and free speech, Biden is walking in lockstep with his predecessor. In addition to endorsing the IHRA definition, his nominee for U.N. envoy, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, has pledged to combat the BDS movement. So even as the Biden administration is reinstating the United States in multilateral forums like the U.N. Human Rights Council, it still intends to further Trump’s agenda — only from the inside where, in its own words, it can “engage ... in a principled fashion.”

This is not to say that Biden is as bad as Trump but to emphasize that shielding Israel and punishing any critiques of U.S. empire more broadly are the norms in the United States. Having any chance to reset this moral compass means having the space to debate, protest, agitate, teach, study, disagree and struggle without reprisal. The Biden administration is aggressively trying to prevent that by changing the window dressing on U.S. policy to appear more reasonable than Trump did while continuing to do the same exact thing.