Compartmentalizing the American Alliance with Israel from the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict
Is it time for the United States to reevaluate its alliance with Israel in light of the latter’s continued occupation of Palestinian territory?
With the election now behind us, President-elect Joe Biden and his team face several foreign policy challenges left unaddressed or exacerbated by the outgoing Trump administration, including in the Middle East. On first glance, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict does not appear to be one of them. From a high-level perspective, a Biden administration is likely to shift the focus of U.S. policy away from the Middle East and toward the Asia-Pacific region, where a rising and revisionist China threatens Washington’s interests and allies, and possibly Europe, where they will inherit a Trump legacy of distrust and recriminations. In crafting its Middle East policy specifically, the Biden team is not inclined to upset America’s strongest ally in the region over a conflict that has frustrated generations of diplomats.
Still, we believe this model of tacit approval of Israel’s occupation is a terrible mistake. Continuing it would be a missed opportunity to correct the pro-occupation excesses of the outgoing administration while strengthening the U.S.-Israeli alliance in the longer term. However, contrary to those who suggest a new effort to conclude a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, we submit the United States would at best be wasting its time expending much effort on diplomacy in this conflict. Instead, a Biden administration should work to extract the United States from its dominant mediating role, for which it is ill-suited, and clearly compartmentalize its strategic relationship with Israel from that nation’s conflict with the Palestinians. This would greatly benefit America’s foreign policy and national security interests.
In brief, compartmentalization will clearly delineate U.S. priorities in the Middle East by closing the chapter on failed meditation between Israel and the Palestinians; improve American relations with the Palestinian Authority, an essential governing and counter-terrorism partner that has too often been treated as an afterthought in the traditional U.S.-Israeli relationship; and create a political framework in which the American alliance with Israel can better withstand ideological pressures. For the reasons listed above, we also believe separating the U.S.-Israeli alliance from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will improve the prospects for a final status agreement.
Implementing this change, first conceptualized in European policy circles as “differentiation,” will involve a number of politically difficult measures, as well as some more modest ones that may already be on the president-elect’s radar. Domestic limitations, including an overwhelmingly pro-Israel majority in Congress as well as Biden’s own deeply positive feelings toward the Jewish state, restrict the extent to which compartmentalization is possible right now. In formulating our suggestions, we kept political feasibility front and center. Those who, for sundry reasons, want to see the U.S.-Israeli relationship changed entirely will invariably find few substantive differences between our vision and the status quo. However, as we will show, compartmentalization would be a major and meaningful break from the past.
Failure of Traditional U.S. Policy
In addition to advancing the U.S.-Israeli relationship, American diplomats have spent the last forty-some years in the pursuit of a just settlement to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This goal took on preeminent importance in American foreign policy as it fit squarely within U.S. national security objectives of the last half-century, which included stabilizing the Middle East to ensure the free flow of oil and countering Soviet influence in the region. Its position as mediator was justified under the theory that, due to the “special relationship” between the United States and Israel, America was uniquely positioned to leverage its ties to extract concessions from Israel — ultimately “delivering” peace. However, this has not come to fruition, and negotiations mediated by the United States have too often looked like a joint American-Israeli effort to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. One former American negotiator, Aaron David Miller, described America’s role as that of “Israel’s lawyer.”
American policy has generally followed this pattern, and it’s hard to understand why anyone expected otherwise. Israel is a strong, prosperous, and democratic ally whose steady presence in an unstable region benefits American foreign policy and national security interests. After decades of negotiations, it should be clear at this point that no U.S. administration will pressure Israel into making major territorial concessions it is not comfortable making. When failure happens, there is an interest in portraying Israel as a willing partner and the Palestinians as less willing, despite evidence of a far more complex picture.
An additional, unintended consequence of American zeal to reach an agreement has been the advancement of right-wing parties that favor a “Greater Israel,” as they have capitalized on the opportunity to put pressure on the government and channel public discontent against perceived American “meddling.” This effectively pushes the needle backwards, moving away from a comprehensive and just settlement to the conflict, while hardening beliefs which encourage harmful policies. This should be the primary lesson of the Obama years, which saw the Israeli right gain dominance in the country: Faced with such hostile conditions, it is better not to attempt the big, flashy efforts toward peace at all.
A New Way Forward: Strategic Compartmentalization
Before elucidating what separation of the U.S. strategic relationship with Israel from the occupation would look like, it is important to establish why the United States — and Biden in particular — should begin to pivot away from its traditionally active role in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
For starters, the focus of the Biden administration’s foreign policy will not be in the Middle East. If the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” was a far-sighted aspiration, it will be something closer to an urgent strategic priority for the incoming president. As if to illustrate the point to the United States, 15 Asian countries — including all 10 Association of Southeast Asian Nations members, South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, and China — signed the far-reaching Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement that excludes Washington. It will not be easy for Biden, if he even wishes, to revive the American role in the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and so his foreign policy team will be working overtime to explore ways in which to shore up American influence in the Asia Pacific region and counter malign Chinese activities intended to disrupt a rules-based order. Similarly, the issues of coronavirus vaccine distribution, climate change, and protecting the American homeland from kinetic and cyber threats will rank far above yet another ambitious and improbable gambit for peace between Israel and the Palestinians. Where the Middle East does come into play, the Biden administration’s time will be occupied by the Iran nuclear issue, which may necessitate a political confrontation with Israel over a matter far more important to U.S. national security interests than the future of the Palestinians.
While one should expect the Middle East to produce unwanted work for American policymakers, the chance of an emergency involving the fundamentals of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict — territory, the status of Palestinian refugees, and major holy sites in Jerusalem — is rather remote. The United States may conceivably be asked to help mediate a ceasefire should a hot war arise from the Hamas-controlled strip, but neither the Israeli nor Palestinian leadership seems ready or able to spend the political capital needed to reach a final status accord. As the Obama administration learned in its peace efforts from 2013 to 2014, Washington cannot fill the demand gap alone.
Biden also has a powerful political reason to initiate a separation of the U.S.-Israeli relationship, which is of immense strategic value to the country, from the Israeli occupation, which is not. We do not accept the predictions of triumphalists or alarmists that progressives such as Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar represent the future of foreign policy thinking in the Democratic Party, particularly on Israel. We do, however, realize that this bloc’s influence is steadily growing and that its constituents — including Palestinian Americans — will need to be accommodated. Some Israeli analysts and commentators already worry the “radical wing” of the party will push Biden to the left on Israel. From our anecdotal experience as individuals embedded in the progressive foreign policy discourse, we can confirm that harsh and valid criticism of Israel’s human rights record in the occupied territories is common, and that American “complicity” is often decried. For someone who rightly values the U.S.-Israeli partnership, it would be wise for Biden to lead the way in crafting a palatable Democratic position in favor of the alliance that could endure inside the party. We are aware that compartmentalization will likely not placate the leftmost wing of the party, but it will provide a compromise position — support for the relationship with Israel combined with a position on the occupation that is congruent with international laws and norms — which will greatly narrow the gulf between the party’s progressive values and its support for the alliance with Israel.
Painting the Policy Picture
Given the decades-long history and extent of relations between the United States and Israel, there are innumerable ways for the United States to draw the line between the alliance with Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Below are four broad policy suggestions that could go a long way in achieving this objective.
Strengthen the Bilateral Relationship with the Palestinians
In November 2016, then-Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett welcomed the incoming President Donald Trump with the jubilant declaration of “the era of the Palestinian state is over.” While never explicitly spelled out in these terms, the Trump administration’s policy has consistently alienated the Palestinians and exacerbated the tenuous and fragile legitimacy of the Palestinian Authority. Shortly before the move of the Israeli embassy to Jerusalem in 2017, the Palestinian leadership cut off communication with the Trump administration, a choice that left them even more isolated amidst burgeoning relations between Israel and the Gulf states.
The Biden administration is entering a delicate and unsustainable environment: A fractured and unpopular Palestinian leadership, an economic crisis, and increasing international isolation has left the Palestinians vulnerable and without any easy options. Aware of this precariousness, the Biden team has announced some steps they will take to rectify the damage the Trump administration wrought to the U.S.-Palestinian relationship, including reinstating U.S. economic and humanitarian aid, reestablishing a U.S. consulate that deals with Palestinian affairs in East Jerusalem, and working to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization mission in Washington.
Signaling their desire for a reset in U.S.-Palestinian relations, the Palestinian Authority announced a resumption in relations with Israel, which restores the security cooperation, as well as the Palestinian acceptance of tax revenues, which Israel collects on the Palestinian’s behalf. Israel promised in return to abide by previously signed agreements.
However, these moves would only represent a return to the status quo ante. While the conditions for a two-state solution remain distant, another avenue the Biden administration could take to compartmentalize its strategic relationship with Israel from the occupation is by advancing a U.S.-Palestinian bilateral relationship, one which does not abut the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but stands on its own two feet.
A component of such a bilateral relationship already exists in the United States Security Coordinator for Israel and the Palestinian Authority. Though limited to the security sphere, this apparatus may serve as a model for a more comprehensive U.S.-Palestinian relationship. Created in 2005, the security coordinator is responsible for enabling security sector assistance and reform to the Palestinians, which includes train-and-equip programs of different elements of the Palestinian security forces, capacity building for the interior ministry, senior leadership training, as well as facilitating cooperation between Israeli and Palestinian forces. The coordinator position is typically held by a three-star general. Though technically confined to the security realm, the coordinator’s responsibility extends beyond these limitations as he is often the highest-level American official on the ground. With skin in the game, the coordinator becomes the staunchest advocate for the stability and security of Palestinian society, an issue critical both to Palestinian and Israeli interests.
Embrace Diplomatic Distinction Between Israel and the Settlements Where It Is Missing
This month, Mike Pompeo became the first U.S. Secretary of State to cross the Green Line separating Israel from the occupied territories and make a diplomatic visit to Israeli settlements. Although the occasion seemed personal (a West Bank winery had named a new label after him), it was in fact the culmination of the Trump administration’s settlement-friendly policies. In 2019, the State Department officially withdrew its legal finding that settlements violated international law — a legal consensus accepted by most of the world. Shortly after, with the release of the Trump peace plan, a phased final status proposal that was widely viewed as unacceptable to the Palestinians and overly favorable to Israel, the White House effectively granted its blessing to long-term Israeli control of around one-third of the West Bank. While Biden is expected to take the Trump plan off the table, his record and that of his foreign policy team indicate a reluctance to initiate a public disagreement with Israel. Last spring, on a call with donors to Democratic Majority for Israel, a pro-Israel group, Biden’s foreign policy adviser and now secretary of state-designate, Antony Blinken, said that a Biden administration would aim for as little “daylight” as possible between the United States and Israel. By reversing course on Trump’s blurring of the Green Line, including American recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, the Biden administration would be taking the first crucial step to separating American priorities from Israel’s settlement project.
However, a reversion to the pre-Trump status quo will not be enough. The Obama administration, like its predecessors, too often allowed the U.S.-Israeli relationship to be portrayed as American backing of the occupation. If the Biden administration is to pursue a policy that differentiates Israel from the occupied territories, it should seek to draw additional lines in its bilateral relationship with Israel and in international institutions. For example, the memorandum of understanding detailing U.S. military aid to Israel contains no clause requiring American aid not be used in ways that advance or protect the settlements. While practically difficult to enforce, insisting on such a requirement to make Israel accede to such restrictions — as it regularly does when dealing with Europe — would send a powerful message that America’s interests do not cross, and legitimize actions taken across, the Green Line. The new administration should also follow the precedent set by Obama in his final weeks in office by abstaining on non-punitive U.N. Security Council resolutions that concern Israeli activities in the occupied territories.
Withdraw the Trump Plan, But Do Not Replace It with Another American Proposal
In December 2016, then-Secretary of State John Kerry gave a 70-minute speech at the State Department, where he spelled out six major principles for an Israeli-Palestinian final status agreement. The speech provoked pushback in Jerusalem, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu expressing “deep disappointment,” and Palestinians saying it was too narrow. Fast forward to January 2020, with the release of the Trump plan, and you have the Israelis cheering on an American proposal and Palestinians retrenching further into self-isolation.
This dynamic needs to end. Articulating American parameters for a final status agreement amounts to empty rhetoric, is no longer constructive, and will do more harm than good. It makes little sense for the United States to put down terms for an agreement that has no chance of being realized, and doing so risks triggering the ire of uncompromising forces on each side. While Biden should take the Trump plan off the table, he should not replace it with another detailed framework. The position of the United States should be support for a negotiated two-state solution roughly along the pre-1967 borders, but the details can only be determined in negotiations.
Stop Discouraging Other Actors from Giving Mediation a Try
Since the early 1990s, and perhaps even before then, the United States has jealously guarded its role as the sole “honest broker” who can achieve a final status agreement between Israel and the Palestinians. Other countries certainly play a role in bringing the sides together; since becoming the principal financial backer of Hamas, Qatar has worked with Israel to ensure funds reach Gaza to prop up the government there. In the past, Egypt and Jordan have played mediating roles, and it was Norway — not the United States — which hosted the secret talks that led to the Oslo Accords. However, with Israel’s encouragement, the United States tends to resist attempts by other international actors to insert themselves on the final status of the conflict. Most recently, the 2016 French Initiative foundered in the face of Israeli opposition and American reluctance to legitimize it.
Beyond putting much helpful distance between the United States and Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, giving space to other potential parties could even advance the cause of peace. The Abraham Accords, which have seen the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain establish normal relations with Israel, carve out such an opening with regional partners. Whereas previously these states were committed to the Arab Peace Initiative — which envisioned peace with the Palestinians before normal relations with the Arab world — they can now play a public and constructive role in future final status talks.
The Upshot: A More Sensible Policy for an Uncertain Future
In 2022, Israel will mark 55 years of occupation of the West Bank and East Jerusalem (it unilaterally withdrew from Gaza in 2005). With little hope on the horizon for a two-state solution, the new administration should chart a path forward for the U.S.-Israeli relationship that will not involve American approval for a status quo in the occupied territories that appears to be largely sustainable for Israel. Although the U.S.-Israeli alliance should not be downgraded or harmed, it is time for the United States to begin distancing itself from a settlement project that serves no discernible American interest, and in fact threatens regional stability by delegitimizing another American partner, the Palestinian Authority.
For Israel, the strategic relationship with the United States will remain a valuable asset. Unlike a few decades ago, Israel today is an economic juggernaut that is not dependent on the United States to survive or defend itself. If it wishes to pursue an ill-advised policy in the occupied territories, it has the capacity to do so without using American aid for that purpose. Compartmentalization efforts are not designed to be coercive and will not disrupt intelligence and defense cooperation, and may be even less likely to trigger the kind of backlash that has previously met active peacemaking efforts.
Similarly, compartmentalization protects the aspects of the U.S.-Israeli relationship that are mutually beneficial. For Palestinians, compartmentalization will mean that America is freed from the diplomatic tug-of-war attempting to bring both sides towards agreement, and can focus on buttressing the many challenges facing the Palestinians, some of which are a consequence of Israeli actions, and some of which are of their own making.
The United States is Israel’s ally, not its lawyer, and American policy should reflect that.
Yaël Mizrahi-Arnaud is a research fellow at the Forum for Regional Thinking and a Ph.D. student in history and Jewish studies at New York University. She previously worked in policy research capacities at the Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations.
Abe Silberstein is a writer and commentator on Israel and U.S.-Israeli relations. His work has previously appeared in The New York Times, Haaretz, The Jerusalem Post, and the Tel Aviv Review of Books. Abe is currently finishing his master’s degree in international policy at New York University’s Robert F. Wagner Graduate School of Public Service.