The U.S. presidential election on November 3 promises to be one of the most consequential in recent memory, with far reaching implications for Americans and the global community alike. Insofar as Israelis and Palestinians are concerned, the differences between President Donald Trump and his Democratic challenger former Vice-President Joe Biden could not be more stark. In his distinctly iconoclastic approach to the conflict, Trump has upended one sacred pillar of international diplomacy after another, including the long-cherished goal of two states for two peoples in Israel and Palestine and the very principles that undergird it. For his part, Biden has pledged to reverse the most destructive of these policies in a bid to salvage what remains of a two-state solution and restore U.S.-Palestinian relations.
Nonetheless, despite their radically different approaches to Israel/Palestine, realities on the ground under a second Trump term or a Biden administration may ultimately produce the same outcome: the death of a two-state solution and the consolidation of a one-state reality. In the end, the future of the conflict and its resolution may have less to do with who resides in the White House than with developments within the Palestinian national movement.
Trump’s Continued Assault on Two States
Since Trump’s decision last December to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, overturning seventy years of U.S. policy and a longstanding international consensus, his administration has systematically worked to dismantle what remained of the Oslo Peace Process and the prospect of a genuine two-state solution. The Trump administration has recognized Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, scrubbed references to Israeli “occupation” from the U.S. government’s lexicon, and unilaterally declared that Israeli settlements were not illegal. In doing so, it has mounted a full frontal assault on United Nations Security Council Resolution 242 and the “land for peace” formula, which have undergirded both U.S. policy and the peace process for more than half a century.
Meanwhile, the closure of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) mission in Washington and the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, along with elimination of all aid to Palestinians including U.S. assistance to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA), have brought U.S.-Palestinians relations to a historic low. The Trump vision, released in January, which calls for a Palestinian entity made up of disconnected territorial units surrounded and controlled by Israel—effectively consolidating the status quo—is more akin to the bantustans of Apartheid South Africa than anything that might be reasonably called a state.
A second Trump term would likely put the final nail in the coffin of a two-state solution—in which case, we are likely to see an even more aggressive effort to implement the vision laid out in the 2020 Trump plan, with or without Palestinian participation. The current surge in Israeli “facts on the ground”—in terms of settlement approvals and construction, home demolitions, and land confiscations, particularly in East Jerusalem and Area C (an Oslo II administrative division representing over 60 percent of the West Bank, which is committed to be gradually transferred to Palestinian jurisdiction)—is likely to intensify considerably. We could also see the erasure of previous “red lines”—Israeli projects deemed unacceptable by the international community and effectively put on hold, such as construction in the “E1” corridor east of Jerusalem and the forced relocation (ie, expulsion) of Palestinian communities from areas coveted by Israeli settlements. Although currently suspended, Israeli plans to formally annex large swaths of the West Bank, as called for in the Trump Vision, would almost certainly be back on the table, especially if the Palestinians continue to reject engaging with the Trump plan, as we would expect them to do.
A second Trump term will bring an even greater push for the normalization of relations between Arab states and Israel, in lieu of progress on the Palestinian front—the so-called “outside-in” approach. This would further marginalize the Palestinians, both in terms of a political issue and as actors with agency. In that case, the Palestinian leadership is likely to come under intense pressure by the Trump administration to accept the new terms of reference. Those terms are, namely, permanent autonomy instead of sovereignty, exclusive Israeli sovereignty over all of Jerusalem including occupied East Jerusalem, and the permanence of existing Israeli settlements. The Trump administration’s assault on Palestinian refugee rights is likely to intensify as well, for example, by pushing for permanent re-absorption in host countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan or pursuing concerted attempts to eliminate UNRWA.
With Palestinian statehood effectively off the table, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s leadership (or that of his successor) will be confronted with an unprecedented existential crisis. Calls for dissolving the Palestinian National Authority (PA), now deprived of its raison d’être, and turning “the keys” over to the Israeli occupation will take on new urgency and seriousness in Palestinian civil society and among political elites. The public will more readily embrace a one-state solution with equal rights for all, particularly if accompanied by high-profile defections from Abbas’ Fatah faction. For its part, Fatah, which has staked its political fortunes on the achievement of a two-state solution, would be forced to revise its program or face irrelevance. Even if the PA does not disband voluntarily, current trend lines suggest its collapse may be more a question of when than if. Internal political division and fragmentation along with institutional stagnation (the Palestinian Legislative council has not convened in more than thirteen years) have all but paralyzed Palestinian politics. A sharp drop in international donor aid, including sweeping aid cuts by the Trump administration, as well as the loss of tax transfers collected by Israel on the Palestinians’ behalf, have put the PA on the brink of financial bankruptcy. Moreover, thanks to COVID-19 and the loss of key donations from Arab states, the PA has lost half of its revenue since the start of 2020 alone.
Even as traditional Arab support for Palestinians appears to be drying up, there is growing solidarity with the Palestinian struggle for freedom in the international community. The demise of a two-state solution, particularly if coupled with formal annexation, is likely to intensify the “apartheid” narrative as well as increase support for boycott, divestment and sanctions (BDS) against Israel. This is particularly true in Europe and North America, where Palestinian activism has converged with broader calls for social and racial justice such as the Movement for Black Lives and the “Me Too” movement. The Trump administration’s assault on the last vestiges of a two-state solution will likely also lead to more serious and robust discussions in Washington, Brussels, and other foreign capitals on alternatives to two states, such as binationalism and confederation. This collapse of the two-state framework will be particularly problematic for European Union officials and for U.S. Democrats, both of whom remain firmly committed to a two-state solution but have so far been reluctant to use meaningful leverage or otherwise pressure Israel to achieve that goal. The imminent death of two states will further embolden the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, where the idea of some form of aid (to Israel) conditionality is already gaining traction, at the expense of the party’s more moderate or establishment wing, which would already be thoroughly discredited in the wake of a humiliating defeat at the hands of Trump, should it come to pass.
Biden: Return to the Status Quo Ante
On the other hand, we would expect a Biden administration to take a radically different approach to Israel and Palestine. A Biden victory come November will no doubt revive hopes for a two-state solution and give Palestinian leaders a much-needed reprieve. However, a Biden administration is unlikely to break with past approaches to the conflict or fundamentally alter dynamics on the ground. For one, Biden along with his running mate, California Senator Kamala Harris, has kept to the traditional pro-Israel line of the party establishment. Like most of his predecessors, Biden has pledged to maintain Washington’s “unstinting support” for Israel. Biden has openly opposed Israel’s occupation and yet personally intervened to ensure the word “occupation” did not appear in the Democratic Party platform. Although polls show broad support among the Democratic party rank and file for things like placing conditions on U.S. aid to Israel and even boycotts, Biden has strongly rejected both. When Democratic hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, both of the progressive wing of the party, suggested they might consider leveraging Israel’s $3.8 billion annual aid package to prevent it from moving forward with annexation, Biden dismissed the idea as “bizarre.” Despite his own public opposition to Israeli annexation, Biden has categorically ruled out the possibility of tying U.S. military assistance to Israel’s actions.
More to the point, the Biden campaign has already made clear that a future Biden administration would seek to reverse many of the most damaging Trump policies in the hope of “keep[ing] the prospect of a negotiated two-state outcome alive.” To that end, Biden has pledged to restore U.S. aid to the PA and to UNRWA and reestablish political and diplomatic ties with the Palestinians by reopening the U.S. Consulate-General in Jerusalem and the PLO embassy in Washington—steps that will undoubtedly be welcomed by the Palestinian leadership and the broader international community. However, such efforts are likely to be severely constrained by existing laws and by Congress, traditionally a bastion of bipartisan pro-Israel sentiment. The March 2018 Taylor Force Act prohibits U.S. assistance to the PA until the PLO stops making payments to the families of Palestinians killed or imprisoned by Israel. The Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA) passed in October 2018, allows for U.S. lawsuits to be applied to the PA once U.S. funding is accepted, effectively ending all U.S. economic, humanitarian, and security assistance to the Palestinians. On the other hand, Biden has said that he would not reverse Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem or move the U.S. embassy back to Tel Aviv, and has not indicated whether he would reverse U.S. recognition of the Golan Heights.
With the goal of two states and U.S.-Palestinian relations now at an all-time low, any attempt to roll back Trump’s scorched-earth policies will seem like meaningful progress. But merely going back to the status quo ante (or some approximation of it) is probably not enough to produce a credible peace process or salvage a two-state solution. Indeed, the Oslo process had been dying a slow, tortured death since the Al-Aqsa Intifada of the early 2000s and effectively ceased to function during the Obama administration. While the Trump administration has sought to do away with Resolution 242 and “land for peace” on an explicit basis, previous administrations had already eroded the established ground rules of the peace process by accommodating settlement expansion for “natural growth” in East Jerusalem, the large settlement blocs and other exemptions.
A Biden administration would probably seek some sort of Israeli commitment not to move ahead with formal annexation and perhaps refrain from other “red line” projects. It is, however, unlikely to seriously challenge more routine settlement activity, home demolitions, land confiscations and other “facts on the ground” that have steadily chipped away at the possibility of two states for more than fifty years. Beyond urging the parties to restart direct negotiations, however, a Biden presidency is unlikely to expend much political capital in a Palestinian-Israeli resolution or put any meaningful pressure on Israel. Moreover, in the absence of serious pressure or meaningful consequences, Israeli leaders will have no incentive to make any of the difficult and politically unpopular decisions needed to achieve a two-state solution, such as the removal of tens (possibly hundreds) of thousands of Jewish settlers, transferring biblically-sensitive areas to Palestinian sovereignty, or ceding control over significant portions of Jerusalem. As a result, the demise of both the PA and a two-state solution is likely to continue, albeit at a slower pace than under a Trump administration.
Wildcards: U.S. & Palestinian Politics
There are two additional wildcards that could change these trajectories in the coming years, namely developments within U.S. and especially Palestinian internal politics. The steady rightward shift in Israeli politics and the apparent triumph of the “Greater Israel” vision has alienated Democrats, moderates and progressives alike.
“I think it’s a serious mistake, a fundamental mistake for the occupation of the West Bank to now become annexed property,” Biden said at a campaign event in Iowa last December. “That is not consistent with the United Nations position, and that’s not consistent with ours.”
Meanwhile, 107 House Democrats sent separate letters to the administration condemning its decision to reverse longstanding U.S. policy on Israeli settlements and expressing their opposition to Trump’s so-called “Deal of the Century” as being “incompatible with peace”.
Yet, while mainstream Democrats have limited their critiques to Israeli settlements, annexation, and other direct threats to a two-state solution, progressives have emphasized the need to focus on Palestinian rights as well. Indeed, a small but vocal cohort of progressive Congress members, including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (a.k.a. AOC) and fellow “Squad” members Rashida Tlaib of Michigan and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, are already shifting the debate and challenging political orthodoxies on Israel/Palestine. These progressive voices are likely to continue doing so regardless of who wins the White House in 2020. This is also evident in Minnesota Congresswoman Betty McCollum’s landmark bill aimed at ending Israeli military detention of Palestinian children—the first bill ever introduced in Congress in support of Palestinian human rights. Further evidence of this shift in narrative includes the recent decision by AOC, an icon of the progressive left, to pull out of an event honoring the late Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin following an outcry from Palestinian-Americans.
The House is already in Democratic hands and is likely to remain so after November. In the event of a Biden victory, Democrats would have a decent chance of flipping the Senate as well. With Democrats controlling the White House and one or both houses of Congress, the intra-party debate among Democrats would effectively become a national debate. Were Trump to be reelected, on the other hand, it would deal a massive blow to the Democratic establishment, including the current Democratic leadership in Congress, and further polarize the party. Either way, progressive voices are likely to remain on the rise and continue shifting the debate. Moreover, 2020 is likely to bring even more progressive voices to Congress, as well as a more intensive and frank debate on Israel/Palestine—the likes of which we have not seen on Capitol Hill in several decades.
Even more crucial are developments on the domestic Palestinian front, particularly in the event of a leadership change. The recent U.S.-brokered normalization deals between Israel and both the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain have simultaneously highlighted the Palestinian leadership’s lack of a cohesive strategy and, somewhat ironically, breathed new life into Palestine’s otherwise stagnant political environment. Both Abbas’s Fatah faction and its Hamas rivals have blasted the normalization deals as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. Both parties have accused the UAE and Bahrain of shattering the Arab consensus, as laid out in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, by which Arab states would normalize relations with Israel only in return for Israel ending its occupation and allowing the establishment of a viable and genuinely independent Palestinian state.
Faced with what they regarded as an existential threat to the Palestinian national movement, the two rival factions have reportedly agreed to a new reconciliation deal. As a result, Abbas is expected to call for sequential elections, perhaps as early as spring 2021, for the Palestinian Legislative Council, PA president, and perhaps most importantly, the Palestine National Council—the PLO’s moribund parliament-in-exile from which the umbrella organization’s leadership is to be drawn. Such elections, were they to take place, would be a major step toward reviving Palestinian institutions and political life, particularly if it includes reforming and reconstituting the PLO to make it genuinely inclusive and representative; a major step toward clarification of the roles of the PA and the PLO, which have been blurred over the years, and a clear path of succession for both institutions.
This is a tall order, and its success is anything but assured, especially given the many previous reconciliation efforts that have come and gone. Nevertheless, much depends on what happens if and when Abbas, now in his mid-80s, departs from the scene, which could very well take place on the next U.S. president’s watch. The matter of who or what may succeed Abbas raises many unanswered (and perhaps unanswerable) questions. What kind of power struggle are we likely to see, first within Fatah and then between Fatah and Hamas? Will Abbas’s departure help or hinder Palestinian reconciliation and the emergence of a unitary polity? Will a new leadership, if and when it emerges, still be committed to the goal of two states, or will it move more in the direction of younger Palestinians who are increasingly in favor of one state with equal rights? How much longer can the PA, which is already deprived of funds and losing legitimacy, survive? If the PA does collapse, who or what might fill the vacuum? Will there be another armed uprising against Israeli military rule, or will Palestinians adopt nonviolent resistance? Can the PLO be reformed and reconstituted, or will Palestinians opt to replace it?
Underlying all of the above, meanwhile, is the question of how Israel and other external actors will respond to these scenarios. Will Israel allow elections to take place, particularly in East Jerusalem? If so, will it and the wider international community accept the outcome of the elections? Will Israel seek to exploit a Palestinian power vacuum, for example by promoting its own alternative leadership? Is there a future for a U.S.-led peace process in the wake of Oslo’s collapse? If not, what, if anything, might replace it?
All of these issues raise important questions about the future of the Palestinian national movement, the answers to which will likely be far more central in shaping Israeli-Palestinian dynamics in the coming period than when, how or if negotiations resume under a Trump or a Biden administration.
Khaled Elgindy is senior fellow and director of the Program on Palestine and Palestinian-Israeli Affairs at MEI. He is the author of the new book, Blind Spot: America and the Palestinians, from Balfour to Trump (Brookings Institution Press, April 2019). Elgindy previously served as a fellow in the Foreign Policy program at the Brookings Institution from 2010 through 2018. Prior to arriving at Brookings, he served as an adviser to the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah on permanent status negotiations with Israel from 2004 to 2009, and was a key participant in the Annapolis negotiations of 2007-08. Elgindy is also an adjunct instructor in Arab Studies at Georgetown University.
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