In October 1973, newly elected Delaware Senator Joe Biden visited Israel on his first official overseas trip and met Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir.
The 30-year-old was visibly moved as Meir explained what she said was Israel’s militarily dangerous situation surrounded by “enemy states”, but he cheered up when the Israeli leader revealed what she said was Israel’s secret weapon: The Israelis have nowhere else to go.
Biden has retold this story countless times, describing the event as “one of the most consequential meetings I’ve ever had in my life”.
It marked the beginning of his unwavering support for Israel and close ties with many Israeli leaders since then.
Fast forward 13 years later when Biden delivered an impassioned speech to the US Senate, making it clear that American interests are closely tied to those of Israel.
“It’s about time we stop apologising for our support for Israel,” he told lawmakers in June 1986. “It is the best $3bn investment we make. If there weren’t an Israel, the United States of America would have to invent an Israel to protect her interests in the region.”
The following year marked the beginning of the annual $3bn of military aid Israel continues to receive from the US.
Biden, a self-avowed Zionist, has attended many pro-Israeli lobby group meetings, such as the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) and J Street.
His victory on Saturday over Donald Trump in one of the closest US presidential elections has been received with a sigh of relief from Palestinian officials – not so much for his winning but more for Trump losing.
Trump and the Palestinian leadership
Under the Trump administration, the past four years have radically changed the political landscape for Israelis and Palestinians. While the US has always been a huge backer of Israel – peddling the two-state solution line over the years, even as Israel continued to expropriate Palestinian land and build more settlements – Trump took this policy to new heights.
He cut off US aid to the Palestinian Authority in the occupied West Bank, formally recognised Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, and moved the US embassy there from Tel Aviv. Trump refused to condemn settlement building and expansion as illegal – in defiance of international law. He also withdrew funding to the UN refugee agency, which millions of Palestinians depend on for education, food and livelihoods.
Trump also brokered “normalisation” deals with three Arab countries who recognised Israel without so much as demanding Palestinian gains in return, leaving the Palestinian leadership increasingly isolated.
Through his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Trump devised a Middle East plan that eschewed the two-state solution – which the Palestinian leadership heavily rejected.
Instead of a proposed Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with occupied East Jerusalem as its capital, Trump’s plan recognised Israeli sovereignty over major illegal settlement blocs in the occupied West Bank. The Palestinian state would consist of cantons of non-contiguous land, and a capital in a suburb of occupied East Jerusalem.
So, will Joe Biden revert back to the accepted Middle East policy of previous US administrations, or will he continue on the path of some of Trump’s undertakings?
No strategic change in US policy
Several Palestinian news agencies carried statements by Palestinian officials with their perspectives on what President-elect Biden’s victory would mean.
Nabil Shaath, the special representative of President Mahmoud Abbas, said the Palestinian leadership does not expect a strategic change in US policy towards the Palestinians, but getting rid of the era of Trump – which he described as “the worst” – is an advantage.
“From what we heard from Joe Biden and his deputy Kamala Harris, I think he will be more balanced and less submissive to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu – thus less harmful to us than Trump,” he said.
Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s (PLO) Executive Committee, said while the first step is to “get rid of Trump and the danger he poses”, she stressed Biden will not be a saviour for the Palestinians.
“The restoration of the Palestinian Authority’s relations with the US after Biden’s victory is under discussion and evaluation,” she said.
“Matters do not happen automatically,” she added. “Rather, the list of demands, interests and positions must be determined, and there is a need for a change in many issues.”
The world also needs to be able to breathe.
Trumpism must be carefully scrutinized & remedied to restore the human, moral & legal equilibrium within and beyond the US. Such phenomena do not emerge from a vacuum. Now is the time for holistic & bold therapeutics
— Hanan Ashrawi (@DrHananAshrawi) November 7, 2020
Ashrawi said decades of pro-Israel US policy produced the Trump policies.
“What is required is to change what Trump has done by radically changing the racism and politics he represented, and building a relationship based on a new vision – justice, respect and clarity,” she said.
In the same context, the head of the political bureau of Hamas, Ismail Haniyeh, called on Biden to set “a historic correction of the course of the unjust US policies against our people, which has made the United States a partner in injustice and aggression, and damaged the stability in the region and the world”.
Haniyeh called on the elected administration to withdraw from Trump’s Middle East plan and cancel the decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.
Settlements, Jerusalem, financial aid and BDS
While former President Barack Obama had a notoriously frosty relationship with Netanyahu, Biden’s personal friendship with the Israeli prime minister stretches back more than three decades.
Congratulations @JoeBiden and @KamalaHarris. Joe, we’ve had a long & warm personal relationship for nearly 40 years, and I know you as a great friend of Israel. I look forward to working with both of you to further strengthen the special alliance between the U.S. and Israel.
— Benjamin Netanyahu (@netanyahu) November 8, 2020
While Biden is a strong proponent of the two-state solution, he refuses to leverage US aid to Israel in order to pressure it into abiding by international law.
“I strongly oppose Israel’s settlement policy on the West Bank,” Biden told PBS in an interview last year. “But the idea that we would cut off military aid to an ally, our only true, true ally in the entire region, is absolutely preposterous.”
Biden also initially opposed the US embassy move to Jerusalem, but has already stated he has no intention of moving it back to Tel Aviv.
His administration plans to reopen the US consulate in occupied East Jerusalem to serve Palestinians, as well as the PLO’s mission in Washington, DC, which was shut down by the Trump administration.
Biden said he will reverse the “destructive cut-off of diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority and cancellation of assistance programmes that support Israeli-Palestinian security cooperation, economic development, and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people in the West Bank and Gaza”.
But he has echoed the Trump administration by conditioning the restoration of financial aid to the PA only if it halts welfare payments to the families of Palestinian prisoners and alleged Palestinian attackers killed by Israelis.
On the issue of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions (BDS) movement, Biden is a staunch opponent and characterised it as “wrong” in a speech at AIPAC in 2016.
Tony Blinken, a senior adviser to Biden, said last summer the president-elect will push back against the BDS movement as well as efforts to denounce Israel for its violations of international law at the United Nations.
“Will we stand up forcefully against it and try to prevent it, defuse it and defeat it? Absolutely,” Blinken said.
Regarding the normalisation of relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan, Biden has previously tried to claim credit for sowing the original seeds under Obama’s terms in office. Biden has urged “Arab states to move beyond quiet talks and take bolder steps toward normalisation with Israel”.