Biden’s reengagement with Palestinians

17-04-2021 12:46 PM

By Michael Jansen

President Joe Biden has abandoned the "America First" agenda of his predecessor in favour of "America is Back", meaning he is in the process of restoring traditional US policies and reasserting its leadership on the international scene.

As far as this region is concerned, he has not done either, particularly when it comes to reviving US support for the Palestinians. In recent weeks, the Biden administration has claimed that it is reengaging with the Palestinians who were ostracised and de-funded by Donald Trump in early 2018 after the Palestinian Authority cut relations with his administration when he recognised Jerusalem as Israel's capital and ordered the shift of the US embassy from Tel Aviv to the holy city. His unilateral actions amounted to a flagrant violation of the longstanding UN and international position that the fate of Jerusalem is to be decided in negotiations between Palestinians and Israelis.

Biden has said he will not reverse Trump's policies on Jerusalem. Therefore, the US is not "back" to where it was before Trump.

Palestinians claim East Jerusalem, occupied by Israel in 1967, as the capital of their future state while Israel, which seized West Jerusalem in 1948, argues all Jerusalem is its eternal, undivided capital. Israel not only promotes Jewish colonisation and cracks down on all and any Palestinian political and cultural activities in the eastern sector of the city but is also is trying to subvert Jordan's guardianship of the Muslim and Christian holy places there. The latter efforts violate the 1994 peace treaty between the Kingdom and Israel.

If, as Biden, claims "America is back" his government should put pressure on Israel to halt these activities in Jerusalem and freeze colonisation of the West Bank. Unless it does, Biden's pledge to return to the "two-state solution" is hollow. There can be no "two-state solution" without East Jerusalem and enough West Bank territory to allow the Palestinians to have a state comprised of contiguous territory rather than an archipelago of scores of urban islets surrounded by a sea of Israeli-held, militarised and colonised territory.

Biden's began re-engaging by proffering $15 million to help the Palestinians in their struggle against the coronavirus which has so far infected 265,000 and killed 2,830 in the West Bank and Gaza. While Israel has provided care for COVID patients and vaccinated its population, it has refused to provide healthcare and inoculate the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, in violation of its obligation as occupying power.

The COVID donation was followed by the announcement of a contribution $150 million to the UN Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). This is less than one-third of the annual sum — $365 million — cancelled by Trump and formerly amounted to around one-third of the agency's former budget of $1.3 billion.

Biden has also proposed $75 million in economic and development assistance and $10 million for peacebuilding programmes. Pre-Trump, the US Agency for International Development (USAID) provided $200 million for assistance and development. The $75 million is under challenge from Israel's allies in Congress.

While UNRWA has welcomed the pathetic contribution, the agency is currently appealing for $1.5 billion to care for the 5.7 million Palestinian refugees in Gaza, East Jerusalem, the West Bank, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon. Trump's abandonment of the Palestinians plunged UNRWA into its worst ever financial crisis, forcing the agency to cut staff, services, and call for others to come to the aid of the Palestinian people. COVID has made this appeal all the more urgent.

If Biden is really serious about ensuring that "America is back" as far as the Palestinians are concerned, he would not only authorise restoration of the annual $365 million US contribution but also compensate for the $1.60 billion over the three years when the US paid nothing. This would give UNRWA the much-needed financial backup and enable the agency to restore its staff and services.

This is precisely what Israel does not want. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his right-wing allies demand UNRWA's demolition, the absorption of the refugees by host states, and funding only for Palestinians who were ethnically cleansed in 1948 who would amount to a few thousand. Their stateless children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren living in neighbouring countries would be left to fend for themselves where they are or migrate

While the Biden administration has been penny-pinching where it comes to humanitarian assistance for the Palestinians, Congress has been asked to allocate $40 million for Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation. This is far more than the $12 million secured by Trump but never delivered. His failure to hand over the cash was not welcomed by Israel.

Biden's Secretary of State Antony Blinken has said the US will not cut or exert leverage over the $3.3 billion in military aid the US gives Israel annually. This is meant to provide Israel with the means to defend itself against Arab attack, but since Israel is the regional military hegemon and sole possessor of nuclear weapons, it no longer needs such a vast sum for defence.

In fact, this contribution is fungible and helps Israel maintain the occupation of East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza.

Although Israel’s Defence Minister Benny Gantz has said Israel would work with the Biden administration to ensure the US return to the 2015 nuclear deal with Iran, he qualified his statement by saying the deal will have to “protect” Israel. Meanwhile, Israel is doing its utmost to scupper the ongoing talks involving the European Union, Britain, France, Germany, China, Russia and Iran, on one hand, and the US, on the other. Last weekend’s cyberattack against Iran’s Nantaz nuclear site is the latest in a series of operations designed to sabotage the deal which provides for lifting sanctions on Iran in exchange for reducing its nuclear programme by 80 per cent. This attack coincided with the visit by US Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin who, according to The Washington Post, was carrying the message: Do not try to prevent the US from reengaging with Iran. Israel all too clearly dismissed this message.

Although Iran has said it does not intend to make nuclear weapons, Israel and its allies insist this is Tehran’s goal and are determined to maintain punitive US sanctions. These measures have contracted Iran’s economy, caused the value of its currency to plummet, driven unemployment, and prevented Iran from accessing medications and vaccines during the COVID pandemic.

Israel takes a harsh line against Iran because of its longstanding support for the Palestinians and opposition to the Israeli occupation. Tehran has said that once there is agreement between Israelis and Palestinians and Palestine emerges as a state, Iranian hostility to Israel will end.

However, Israel wants to retain Iran as its regional enemy in order to project the notion that Israel is under constant threat and must keep its enemies in check.

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