Joe Biden is trying to keep his distance from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which means continuing with a US policy that is unrelentingly favourable to Israel. This is not likely to change as Biden reasserts “Israel’s right to defend itself” without making even a symbolic bow to the Palestinians’ equal right to safety and security.
Biden would clearly like the present situation to just go away. This is the last issue his administration wants to spend time thinking about, knowing that its greatest efforts are likely to produce nothing but political self-harm.
But the old status quo in relations between Israelis and Palestinians has become unstable and may be unsalvageable.
Biden had decades as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to teach himself that the Middle East in general – and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular – is full of nasty surprises. Yet the White House was genuinely surprised by the sudden eruption of the crisis this week and does not know what to do. Not that it is alone in this since Donald Trump and Mr Netanyahu had gone far in persuading world leaders that the Palestinians had been decisively defeated and could be ignored.
We will hear a lot about bringing an end to the violence in the next few weeks and this will presumably occur at some point. There will then be talk about “relaunching the peace process” and “the two-state solution”, both of which are moribund and likely to stay that way.
The advantage – from the point of view of the US – in talking about these unattainable long-term goals is that they provide a show of activity, but lead nowhere. It would be much better if the US tried to achieve more limited but more realistic objectives that would seek to mitigate the grievances that have produced the present explosion.
These would include rolling back some of the Trump anti-Palestinian measures by seeking to end the Gaza blockade; reaffirming that Israeli settlements on the West Bank are illegal; supporting Palestinian elections – and many more.
None of this is very likely to happen. Biden will put energy into resuming negotiations with Iran, which got somewhere before and might do so again. Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states have much less appetite these days for a US confrontation with Iran than they did a few years ago. The civil wars in Iraq and Syria have ebbed and the political temperature in the region is coming down.
Biden will keep in mind that in his political lifetime three US presidents – Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan and George W Bush – were all badly damaged by stepping on political land mines in the Middle East. He will want to avoid doing the same thing, but he may not be able to.