Recent signals from the Biden administration are giving Palestinian leaders cause for hope that a meaningful two-state solution is back on track, even if the road ahead remains long and arduous. Some aid to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, which cares for Palestinian refugees, will resume; some bilateral assistance for certain projects and humanitarian concerns in the occupied territories will come back online; and the State Department will go back to referring to Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem, as “occupied.”
While hope is generally a good thing, it would be wrong to believe that the current administration is planning to prioritize peacemaking or that it will take serious action to change the status quo. This won’t take place while it is promising to continue past policies of shielding Israel and Israeli officials from accountability at the United Nations and before the International Criminal Court.
Palliatives in the form of economic assistance have proven to be a chimera meant to divert attention away from reality. U.S. diplomacy has acquiesced to indefinite Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank and the marginalization of Gaza. The best the Palestinians should hope for is more of the same—a sort of souped up limited self-governance within the enclaves where they currently reside. Just enough will be done so there is some constructive deniability about what is taking place, namely the separate and unequal treatment of Palestinians and Israelis described by a growing number of human rights experts as apartheid.
At this moment of racial reckoning in the United States, when policymakers are considering how to address systemic inequality and injustice, how can Washington continue to materially support a system of ethnoreligious domination in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories? At a time when a U.S. secretary of state has hired a black woman to serve as the first ever diversity and inclusion chief to reform the way the department operates, why is the Palestinian-Israel issue being treated in such a business-as-usual fashion? Why are the same pat statements about the parties needing to return to the negotiating table being used? And why is the United States saying that it supports a two-state solution even as Israeli settlements expand, entire Palestinian communities are being erased, and settlers are running amok and pillaging Palestinian property?
The reason for American myopia is endemic to decades of U.S. engagement on Palestine and Israel and will therefore require a seismic shift in how the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis is understood by officials. This change is happening, albeit slowly. A recently released paper by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the U.S./Middle East Project provides the architecture for a new approach that can facilitate this process among U.S. policymakers. The approach requires that the rights and human security of both Palestinians and Israelis be prioritized over relaunching pointless peace talks or short-term palliative measures meant to improve economic conditions on the ground. It holds the best chance for changing the negative trajectory that Palestinians and Israelis are on and could help lay the necessary foundation for peacemaking. But why this approach now and how does it work?
For almost 30 years, international law and the rights of people—in particular those of Palestinians as a national group as well as individuals—have been systematically removed from a resolution of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. In fact, U.S. policymakers have tended to believe that a focus on rights and freedoms guaranteed under international law—those contained in documents such as the Fourth Geneva Convention or the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights that the United States was instrumental in drafting—would kill the chances of Israel coming to the negotiating table.
The result was that Israeli settlement expansion was incentivized. Why should Israel stop building if it knew that Washington would ultimately accommodate its new facts on the ground by redefining peace parameters, while also shielding Israel from accountability in international forums? Removing the language of law and rights from conflict resolution has set Palestinians and Israelis on a path guaranteeing permanent occupation, further colonization, and the forced displacement of Palestinians.
When a normative framework is missing from conflict resolution, the weaker party—here an occupied people—is left without a rudder to guide negotiations. This enables proposals like former president Donald Trump’s so-called Deal of the Century, which favored Israel’s maximalist territorial ambitions. Such a situation also gives the United States a freer hand to protect Israel and prevent Palestinians from resorting to legal and diplomatic mechanisms to end impunity, all in the name of creating a “friendly environment” for negotiations.
So what happens when rights and law become central to conflict resolution? Does a two-state or a one-state solution with equality for all automatically materialize? Of course not. What bringing back rights and international legitimacy does is change political calculations so that indefinite occupation and rights violations are no longer cost-free. Over time, Israeli leaders, who will have cause for concern about the legal risks associated with perpetuating rights violations to both the state and themselves, and who also crave the boost that good relations with a U.S. administration gives them domestically, are encouraged to recalibrate their actions. When that happens, we have a much better chance of creating an environment conducive for meaningful negotiations toward a durable solution.
Prioritizing rights would also allow the Palestinian leadership to rebuild its relationship with its people and restore some measure of credibility and legitimacy. When the straightjacket of perpetual negotiations that go nowhere is shed and U.S. policy no longer conditions aid or the U.S.-Palestinian bilateral relationship on a return to a moribund peace process, space is created for Palestinians to get their own house in order. Serious, free, and fair elections—ones not micromanaged to produce results Palestinians believe the U.S. requires—have more of a chance of taking place. This allows for prioritizing the revival of national institutions. In such a context sustainable development that promotes Palestinian steadfastness can be reimagined, so that it challenges Israeli occupation rather than reinforces lines drawn by Israel for settlement growth.
Would a U.S. administration ever adopt a rights-based approach? Not today, but support is growing. Polling year after year shows that two-thirds of Americans would like to see a neutral U.S. policy toward Israel and Palestine. A clear majority favors an approach that is consistent with American values and recent Gallup polling indicates that a majority of Democrats, 53 percent, want the United States to put more pressure on Israel to make peace—a 10 percent increase from two years ago. Leading progressive Democrats are also calling on the administration to ground U.S. engagement in international law and human rights. Significantly, a bill was introduced last week in the U.S. House of Representatives to prevent aid to Israel being used to violate Palestinian human rights.
Fearing these trendlines, two-thirds of House members, many of whom are supported by the pro-Israeli American Israel Public Affairs Committee lobbying organization, took the initiative recently to call on the leadership of the House Appropriations Committee to oppose efforts to reduce or condition aid to Israel.
Though the changes in the American electorate and among the progressive wing of the Democratic Party aren’t being reflected in U.S. policy yet, the Palestinian leadership should take advantage of such openings by also asserting the centrality of human rights and normative frameworks over relaunching peace talks. The alternative is more of the same. And this, no one can afford.