The Biden administration has been repeating the mantra about supporting a two-state solution. So far, no one has produced a plan, which is good news since no U.S. plan has ever been adopted, and it is up to the parties themselves to reach an agreement. You would think the president has enough on his plate with the coronavirus, challenges from China and Russia, the withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan and negotiations with Iran, among other issues. Still, knowing the U.S. State Department, it’s hard to imagine that Blinken’s crew won’t try to cook up a peace plan.
The Biden team dismissed the Trump Mideast plan, which is unfortunate since it was the most practical. At the very least, Biden should recognize that the 70 percent of the West Bank envisioned for a Palestinian state in that plan is the new baseline for negotiations. There is no going back to the idea of Israel withdrawing from more than 90 percent of the disputed territory.
Biden is unlikely to acknowledge this because it would give Trump some credit and undermine his efforts to show the Palestinians that he is their pal. Still, Biden should temper the Palestinians’ expectation that he might try to out Obama by putting the screws to the Israelis and backing their irridentist demands. One way to do that would be to reiterate the positions taken by President George W. Bush in his letter to Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in 2004. For example, Biden should disabuse the Palestinians of the notion that the United States will support their territorial demands. As Bush put it:
In light of new realities on the ground, including already existing major Israeli populations centers, it is unrealistic to expect that the outcome of final status negotiations will be a full and complete return to the armistice lines of 1949, and all previous efforts to negotiate a two-state solution have reached the same conclusion. It is realistic to expect that any final status agreement will only be achieved on the basis of mutually agreed changes that reflect these realities.
In addition to recognizing the changes in demography, this was a restatement of the longstanding U.S. interpretation of U.N. Security Council Resolution 242—namely, that it did not require Israel to withdraw from all territory captured in the Six-Day War. Bush also recognized that contrary to popular mythology, settlements are not the obstacle to peace and that Israel should not be expected to force tens of thousands of Jews from their homes.
The Obama administration pointedly refused to accept Bush’s position. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated on June 17, 2009, that “in looking at the history of the Bush administration, there were no informal or oral enforceable agreements.” Obama subsequently undermined Bush’s expression of U.S. policy by pressuring Israel to accept Palestinian ultimatums and demanding that Israel adopt a settlement freeze that conflicted with the Oslo accords and was not even one of the Palestinians’ demands.
After Obama left office, former peace negotiator Dennis Ross underscored the importance of resurrecting the understanding between Bush and Sharon “because it said that no agreement can involve going back to the 1949 Armistice lines or the equivalent of June 4, 1967.” It was also necessary, Ross explained, because the Obama administration’s decision to abstain on U.N. Security Council Resolution 2334 “effectively created June 4, ’67 as a default position.”
Now you might be thinking the likelihood of Biden endorsing a policy expressed by George Bush is as remote as his supporting Trump’s position. Well, think again. Biden has already backed Bush’s views. Following the release of Bush’s letter, Biden voted with 95 other senators (Biden’s climate czar and Obama’s Secretary of State John Kerry did not vote) and 407 members of the House to endorse the views the president outlined.
Read those vote totals again. How many other policies get near-unanimous support from both chambers?
In addition to making clear that the situation on the ground had to be taken into account in negotiations, meaning that the growth and location of the Jewish population had to be considered, the Bush letter and the congressional resolutions expressed several other important points that deserve restatement.
Biden should, for example, reiterate that the Palestinians must “undertake an immediate cessation of armed activity and all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere, and all official Palestinian institutions must end incitement against Israel. The Palestinian leadership must act decisively against terror, including sustained, targeted and effective operations to stop terrorism and dismantle terrorist capabilities and infrastructure.” This applied to the Palestinian Authority as well as Hamas.
Biden also agreed with Bush in rejecting the Palestinian demand that refugees be allowed to “return” to their homes in Israel. Instead, a “just, fair and realistic framework for a solution to the Palestinian refugee issue” would require Palestinian refugees to be settled in a Palestinian state “rather than in Israel.”
In light of “Operation Guardian of the Walls,” it is worth reminding the president that he agreed on the need to “prevent the areas from which Israel has withdrawn from posing a threat to the security of Israel” and that “Israel has the right to defend itself against terrorism, including the right to take actions against terrorist organizations that threaten the citizens of Israel.”
The violence and repressive measures of P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas also demand reaffirming the position that a two-state solution “can only be fully realized when terrorism is defeated, so that a new state may be created based on rule of law and respect for human rights.”
Finally, he should restate that “the United States remains committed to the security of Israel, including secure, recognized and defensible borders, and to preserving and strengthening the capability of Israel to deter enemies and defend itself against any threat.”