An Analysis of Trump and Biden Administrations’ Approaches to the Israel-Palestine conflict
Israel and the United States have a long-lasting and close relationship. As one of Israel's few powerful regional allies, the US plays an important role in legitimising Israel’s international standing. Likewise, Israel offers the US an ally in a strategic and necessary position within the Middle East close to other global powers.
For the month of May 2021, a short burst of violence between the Palestinian and Israeli populations drew substantial international attention and scrutiny to the tumultuous region and consequently the US-Israeli relationship.
Arguably the US has endured years of semi-stable foreign policy positions in regard to the largest global issues. However, the election of President Trump followed by Biden's presidency has disrupted the US’ grasp on international power and conflicts. This article will analyse the differences and similarities in approaches used by the Trump and Biden administrations in regard to the Israel-Palestine dispute and subsequent factors such as human rights violations, humanitarian aid, and military support.
The Trump Administration
Under the Obama Administration, US relations with Israel became increasingly tense as President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu's relationship publicly soured. The Trump Administration's arrival signified an opening for Netanyahu to re-establish a strong Israel-US alliance in line with the Likud - National Liberal Movement's policy positions.
On the campaign trail, Trump called for policy changes throughout the Middle East such as ending US involvement in the Iran Nuclear Deal, taking a stronger position against Islamic extremist groups, and expressing unwavering support for the existing and any future West Bank settlements. While it remains unclear if Trump truly believed in these policy decisions, his actions within the first 100 days of his presidency signified to the world that the international community would have to adjust to a new and volatile world order.
Domestically, the US’ relationship with Israel has long faced internal discord amongst legislators and the greater public. As the 2016 election campaign continued, Trump’s rhetoric gained significant attention due to its inflammatory nature. In congruence with this, the level of hate crime and attitudes towards the US-Israeli alliance clearly shifted. In 2016, the FBI estimated that New York City had a rise of 19 per cent in the number of antisemitic attacks, a number which increased to 55 per cent in 2017 as Trump took office. Internally, the United States had a lot of potential policy approaches but failed to find a suitable end to this intractable conflict.
Trump maintained an "America First" strategy on the international stage. This period of international isolationism under President Trump created the national identity and domestic support necessary to abandon the previous approaches of his predecessors and instead create a new path. Trump's isolationist strategy not only aimed to distance itself from international connections but also change the mutually beneficial nature of the international community into one that was adversarial in nature. In the early days of Trump’s administration, the US announced new policy directions relating to Iran and Syria; all international dilemmas in which Israel has many interests.
While no clear strategy emerged, many questioned why the United States maintained such a high level of support and involvement in Israel even at times when it did not benefit them to do so. Nevertheless, these actions immediately sent the message that for the next four years the US was willing and ready to engage in force when necessary to protect both their interests and Israel’s in the Middle East.
Another reason for this dramatic shift comes from Netanyahu’s personal relationship with Trump. After Trump recognised the disputed Golan region as a part of Israel, Netanyahu likened him to previous historical figures like Cyrus the Great, the founder of the first Persian Empire. This relationship has transitioned into real-life payoffs for the Israelis.
While it is not possible to cover all aspects of Trump’s Israeli strategy, there are some actions that have had long-lasting consequences and implications. In 2017, Trump officially recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel by moving the US embassy from Tel Aviv, a move resisted for decades by his predecessors due to the religious and cultural significance the city holds for billions of people across a variety of religious denominations. Additionally, this move signified a US abandonment of the two-state policy approach, often viewed as a potential solution for the Gaza conflict.
Outside of bilateral communications, the United States has helped bolster Israel’s place in the Middle East through a variety of international agreements with Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco, and the United Arab Emirates. These accords provide Israel with more support in case of conflict with Iran as the future of their nuclear program remains unanswered.
While Trump’s administration has conducted negotiations and built relationships externally in regard to their relationship with Israel, Trump did little to address the turmoil occurring on the West Bank itself. His grandiose promises of "the deal of the century" fell short of any real action. This may be due to the nature of the negotiations themselves as they only included representatives from Saudi Arabia, US, and Israeli delegations with no Palestinian Authority (PA) or Hamas representation in attendance.
Ultimately, Trump’s actions in regard to Israel relied heavily on Netanyahu’s direction and guidance and disrespected previous traditions and approaches by abandoning principle US foreign policy positions.
The Biden Administration
The overwhelming message of the 2020 election was "anyone but Trump". Biden’s long political history and proven ability to compromise across the aisle made him an ideal candidate to lead America after the Trump era. Biden vowed to reverse many of Trump’s domestic and international policies, including the US' relationship with Israel and the topic of Palestine. It appears Biden hopes to revive the old approaches of his predecessors, drawing from "The Clinton Parameters" and Bush’s "Road Map for Peace". These plans all outline a two-state approach for the Palestinian territory and emphasise a need for no conflict but rather for peaceful negotiations.
While these are the promises President Biden has publicly made, his actions in office have not reflected similar sentiments. During the campaign trail Biden vowed to re-establish ties with the Palestinian leadership; however, he refused to move the US embassy from Jerusalem. Similarly, Biden pledged to re-open the Palestinian embassy in Washington DC; however, Trump had passed additional restrictions stopping such an act. For the first few months it appeared as if the US was content with not initiating tension and turned a relative blind eye to the plight of the Palestinian people. One of Biden’s promises was to restart American aid to the United Nations Palestinian refugee program and re-open diplomatic relations with the Palestine Liberation Organisation, some of which has yet to come to fruition.
Biden’s brief length of time in office has provided minimal opportunities to try and discern the administration's position on this delicate matter. It seems as if the Biden administration is content with the status quo so long as it serves their strategic interests within the greater Middle Eastern region. Essentially, so long as the Israel-Palestine conflict does not harm US interests, the Biden administration is content to play a minor role. However, this is not always possible, especially in a conflict that relies on inequality within a population to maintain control.
Escalating Tensions and Renewed Fighting in 2021
In May 2021, the worst fighting and violence in years reignited within Gaza, causing an international diplomatic crisis. Protests in response to six Palestinian families being forcibly evicted from their homes in Palestinian territory by Israeli forces quickly escalated to violence amongst both populations. Tensions particularly heightened around the Muslim and Jewish holidays of Laylat al-Qadr and Jerusalem Day respectively. On 7 May Israeli forces raided the Temple Mount, or the al-Aqsa Mosque - one of the most religious and respected centres of Judaism, Christianity and Islam in the world, using rubber bullets, tear gas, and stun grenades to take control of the site. Hamas gave Israeli forces until 6pm on 10 May to withdraw from their unlawful occupation. However, no negotiations were accomplished and that night both sides began firing rockets at one another other.
After eleven days of fighting, approximately 243 Palestinians and 12 Israelis were dead and around 1,900 Palestinians and dozens of Israelis were injured. Israeli strategists targeted media skyscrapers, single-family homes, tunnel systems, and medical facilities. Their attacks also targeted the only COVID-19 testing centre in all of Palestinian territory, stopping any hope of addressing the pandemic. The Israeli government claims that around 225 of the Palestinian casualties were Hamas militants, however, over a hundred of the losses have already been identified as women and children. The conflict was finally brought to an end through a ceasefire negotiated by Egypt, using its position as a member of the Arab League.
Ultimately the relationship the US has with Israel played a large role in the conflict as the US is Israel’s primary security and arms provider. In 2011, the US worked with Israel to develop the Iron Dome, one of the most technologically advanced and effective missile defence systems. This effectively protected Israel from the majority of Hamas's weak and outdated artillery. Conversely, Palestine had no such defence.
The international reaction to the conflict spurred multiple attempts at negotiation by the United Nations, Arab League, and European Union. Throughout the conflict public opinion remained divided. Nevertheless, there was an agreement that the violence had gone too far and that this situation would not yield any political gains for either side.
The role the Biden administration played in helping resolve the tension remains unclear; especially because due to the US’ very notable, broad, and public support of Israel’s missile strikes. Additionally, the US continued to back Israel in the UN by vetoing any calls for a ceasefire or statement of condemnation by the United Nations Security Council. Some argue that Biden potentially played a larger role than previously thought by leveraging his public commitment to the Netanyahu government in private discussions to force Israel to cease their actions. While this political gamesmanship cannot be definitively proven, recent State Department memos and legislation have made the connection between the US, Israel, and Egypt apparent. High-ranking US officials like Secretary of State Blinken have recently confirmed meetings with officials from Jordan and Egypt throughout the ceasefire negotiations. Moreover, the US has just announced a US$ 735 million (approximately GBP 529 million) arms sale with Israel, a routine action many fear is part of a political quid-pro-quo rewarding Israel for ending their artillery campaign.
It is impossible to identify exactly what role the US played in ending this conflict and the role it will play in the future relationship between the two local populations. However, one thing is clear: the United States has no interest in prioritising the Palestinian population over their own regional interests. Therefore, the Palestinian cause cannot rely on America’s moral leadership when it comes to addressing actions perpetuated by US allies. Some scholars have argued that Biden’s muted response to this event could be seen as a message to Hamas that the US will not come to their aid, even if they have broad public support.
Biden has already worked on rebuilding the international public support he lost by pledging US$360 million (around GBP 259 million) to rebuild the Gaza area and infrastructure. However, these actions appear insignificant in the large scale of the conflict.
The UN Commission of Human Rights (UNHCR) has identified potential violations and war crimes committed during the conflict against the Palestinian general population and those cases will be investigated in the coming months. For now, no solution exists that both sides would be willing to accept which continues to make the Israeli-Palestinian dispute one of the most challenging, unpredictable, and longest-lasting intractable conflicts in the world.
Any future negotiation and peace-creating attempts will require not only wide-spread international support but crucially will also require the US to play a larger role in ending the dispute. The United States needs to decide if they will forever continue to support Israel to extreme lengths or, now that nations like Bahrain and the UAE have normalised relations with Israel, they will start to act as a member of the international community rather than being selfishly bilateral in their regional strategic policies. Ultimately, however, the losses suffered during this conflict hurt any hope of reconciliation as the international community waits and hopes for accountability, justice, and peace that may never come.