Israelis Hope Biden Builds on Trump Plans, Palestinians Reject 'Deal of the Century'

As President Joe Biden settles into office, he is already contending with entrenched rival interests in an Arab-Israeli conflict that has evolved significantly since he left office as former President Barack Obama's vice-president just four years ago.

A large factor in this transformation are two initiatives pioneered by President Donald Trump: The "Vision for Peace" launched almost exactly one year ago, and the Abraham Accords that have taken shape since last summer. Both relied on the close relationship forged between Trump and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

For Israel and a select group of Arab states building bridges with their historic foe, progress now means mostly seeking more of the same as seen under Trump, who lavishly courted both sides and oversaw historic diplomatic endeavors between them.

Palestinians, on the other hand, are looking for a new path that would bring them off the sidelines to restore their role as a main player in negotiations.

Newsweek spoke with a number of officials across the region and in the Biden administration, who shared their outlook on the year past and how best to move forward under new U.S. leadership.

"The notion in Israel is positive, there are hopes," an Israeli official told Newsweek. "They understand this is not going to be Trump, but people have high hopes for President Biden because of his history with Israel, and because of the people he appointed in his administration."

Although they are proceeding cautiously, holding memories of the sometimes chilly relationship with the Obama administration, Netanyahu's government has welcomed the appointees of officials seen as friendly toward Israel, such as Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

In the first official contact between the U.S. and Israel since Biden's inauguration on Wednesday, White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan phoned his Israeli counterpart Ben Shabbat over the weekend.

"Mr. Sullivan reaffirmed President Biden's unwavering commitment to Israel's security and expressed appreciation for Ben Shabbat's contributions to our bilateral partnership," a White House readout said. "They discussed opportunities to enhance the partnership over the coming months, including by building on the success of Israel's normalization arrangements with UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Morocco."

Biden's national security adviser also laid out a plan for close communications with Israel on Middle East affairs.

"Mr. Sullivan confirmed the United States will closely consult with Israel on all matters of regional security," the readout said. "He also extended an invitation to begin a strategic dialogue in the near term to continue substantive discussions."

jerusalem, aqsa, mosque, palestine, israel
A Palestinian man reads the front page of Al-Quds newspaper, headlined in Arabic "Joe Biden the new U.S. President" in front of the Dome of the Rock in the Al-Aqsa mosque compound, Islam's third holiest site, in the old city of Jerusalem on November 8, 2020. The new U.S. administration has sought to restore diplomacy with Palestinians without rattling the Israeli government that forged close ties with former President Donald Trump. AHMAD GHARABLI/AFP/Getty Images

But even with signs of a warm start for the two governments, it would be hard to match the level of enthusiasm with which the countries interacted under Trump.

Netanyahu repeatedly referred to Trump as "the greatest friend" Israel has ever had, owing to a number of pro-Israel foreign policy decisions that amounted to a reversal of traditional U.S. positions.

Foremost among those decisions were Trump's recognition of the disputed holy city of Jerusalem as Israel's capital and his acceptance of Israel's occupation and annexation of the Golan Heights in Syria as legitimate. Both moves were met with widespread criticism from the international community and denounced at the United Nations.

The Trump administration continued intensive Middle East policy consultations in its final months and weeks, securing historic agreements to normalize Israel's relationships with several Arab states. It included the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain in a series of summer agreements called the Abraham Accords, adding Sudan and Morocco in the following months.

So far, ties appear to be developing independently of the change in power in Washington.

Israel officially opened its mission in Morocco on Tuesday after a two-decade closure. A day earlier, Israel's Walla news reported that Israeli Intelligence Minister Eli Cohen took a brief trip to Sudan in the first such visit of its kind in order to discuss advancing the fledgling relations between two countries that went to war more than once.

Also on Monday, Israel opened its embassy in Abu Dhabi, and the UAE approved doing the same in Tel Aviv, not following the U.S. lead in making a determination on the status of the holy disputed city of Jerusalem.

Reached for comment by Newsweek, the UAE embassy in Washington referred to remarks made by State Minister for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash for the Abu Dhabi Strategic Debate shortly after Biden's electoral victory in November.

The senior UAE diplomat called the Abraham Accords "a decision born of tolerance and openness, and a desire to reduce polarization in the region, who is a decision born out of a desire for a much needed strategic shift, and a new pragmatic vision."

While Palestinians have widely rejected the move as a "betrayal," Gargash argued recognizing Israel "does not in anyway diminish our concern about the plight of the Palestinian people." He said that "the UAE continues to see it as imperative that a just and comprehensive peace is reached, but ultimately the UAE recognizes that the Palestinians and the Israelis are the ones who will need to decide on the shape of that peace," offering to play a role in supporting the process.

About two weeks after Gargash's comments, the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department outlined its own approach to the incoming administration, with whom "Palestine looks forward to strengthening relations with the U.S.," according to a statement sent to Newsweek at the time.

"In line with international law and U.N. resolutions, we are also keen on engaging the U.S. in the multilateral effort to advance the Middle East Peace Process, with clear terms of reference and a timeline, towards achieving the internationally endorsed two-state solution on the 1967 borders, with East Jerusalem the capital of the State of Palestine," the statement said.

While more than 138 U.N. member states recognize the State of Palestine, final status has eluded the embattled people who today hope the Biden administration may prove a better option to help achieve their goals.

"After 53 years of occupation, oppression, and injustice, the only way forward is to end Israel's occupation and colonial settlement enterprise towards fulfilling the national rights of the people of Palestine, foremost of which is our right to self-determination," the PLO Negotiations Affairs Department statement told Newsweek. "For our region to live in peace and security, it's imperative to achieve independence, freedom, justice, and dignity for all."

But the departing Trump administration always suggested the publicly announced normalization deals were only the beginning, as has Netanyahu.

The new relations of the Abraham Accords, the first between Israel and Arab countries since Egypt and Jordan first made peace in 1979 and 1994, respectively, are developing against the backdrop of what's perceived by many in the Arab World to be a growing threat from Iran, also viewed as a common adversary by Trump and Netanyahu.

The Israeli official with whom Newsweek spoke said it was important that the new U.S. president and his officials recognize that meaningful progress was made during the Trump administration.

"We hope that the Biden administration will acknowledge the developments in the Middle East, the Abraham Accords," the official said.

joe, biden, benjamin, netanyahu, israel
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu give joint statements to press in the prime minister's office in Jerusalem on March 9, 2016. Biden has expressed criticism of Israel's annexation policies against Palestinian territory but has also censured Palestinian leaders for not condemning violence against Israeli civilians and security forces. DEBBIE HILL/Pool/AFP/Getty Images

And while Biden has expressed support for diplomacy with Iran, he's offered little to no rebuke of Trump's foreign policy moves as they relate to Israel, even the more controversial ones. He has also been critical of Israeli settlement building on Palestinian territory in the past, but has yet to officially revoke the Trump administration's "Vision for Peace" either.

The ambitious plan launched last January would further fracture Palestinian territory, granting key lands to Israel in exchange for billions of dollars of projected investment—primarily from wealthy Arab states—and allow a potential path for statehood.

No talks came to fruition, but the Israeli official said Palestinians to this day are being beckoned to the table for talks.

"We are calling on the Palestinians to come and negotiate," the Israeli official said.

For all the fervor for which Israel greeted Trump's "Vision for Peace," the framework was immediately rejected by Palestinian leadership, represented both by the left-wing, Fatah-led Palestinian Authority in the West Bank and the Sunni Islamist movement Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.

Though divided in a number of their views, the two main Palestinian sides saw a common foe in Trump and Netanyahu's close relationship as represented in the plan, sometimes termed the "deal of the century."

"We hope that Biden will not repeat the big mistakes that Trump made against our people, especially the so-called deal of the century," Hamas spokesperson Hazem Qasem told Newsweek.

He called on the Biden administration to balance the U.S. approach, and to abandon his predecessors' close alignment with Israel's view.

"We hope that the policy of complete bias practiced by the United States alongside the occupation will stop," Qasem said, "as it encourages the continued denial of our legitimate rights."

Gaza continues to be a battleground for opposing parties of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The tiny Mediterranean strip has been led by Hamas since a violent 2007 split with Fatah, but other Palestinian parties also operate there, including the Palestinian Islamic Jihad. The U.S. considers both Gaza-based groups to be terrorist organizations.

Even as COVID-19 hit Israelis and Palestinians alike, rockets and fighter jets shared the skies over the region throughout the past year. Now, with Israelis getting vaccinated at record rates, Hamas anticipates that security conditions will further deteriorate as the misery in Gaza is compounded.

And increased misery has often led to conflict in Gaza.

"Unfortunately, there is always an opportunity for a renewal of the violent conflict in light of the continued siege," Qasem told Newsweek. "The blockade on the Gaza Strip is intensifying, and its impact is multiplied by the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, and the continuation of these conditions is unacceptable."

An Israeli official dealing with Gaza also recently expressed concerns about worsening conditions across a border now fortified with a new underground sensory concrete barrier. While this technology and other Israeli military capabilities afford a battlefield advantage, the official said an uncontrollable humanitarian crisis could prove a new threat in and of itself.

"The humanitarian situation, for now, has bothered me more than any attacking issue that I can see now," the Israeli security official told Newsweek last week. "Because I think that against attacks, we have great answers, and we have a great defense, but for something humanitarian, it could start to be more complicated for us than just to stand against terrorists. This is my challenge for 2021."

As for the central Palestinian government in the West Bank, President Mahmoud Abbas, who recently marked 16 years in office, announced earlier this month he planned to hold the first elections since then this summer as part of a unity deal with Hamas.

joe, biden, mahmoud, abbas, palestine, israel
Then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (R) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas talk during a meeting at the presidential compound in the city of Ramallah, in the West Bank, on March 9, 2016. The Biden administration has promised to revitalize diplomacy with Palestinian leadership shunned by President Donald Trump, who closely aligned himself with Israel. DEBBIE HILL/AFP/Getty Images

The outcome could end up having a substantial effect on the Biden administration's options in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In his official statement congratulating Biden on his inauguration, Abbas signaled a willingness to work with the new U.S. president for future talks.

"We look forward to working together for peace and stability in the region and the world," Abbas wrote, according to the official Palestine News Agency. He affirmed his readiness for "a comprehensive and just peace process that would achieve the aspirations of the Palestinian people in freedom and independence."

A report sent to Newsweek by the Palestine Liberation Organization's Negotiations Affairs Department additionally outlined consultations regarding how to engage the new U.S. administration as one of the top priorities for Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh during meetings planned for Tuesday.

In his remarks he remained firmly opposed to countries that have normalized relations with Israel, calling on them to walk back from their agreements.

"We welcome any retreat by some parties regarding dealing with settlements, rejecting the occupation and abiding by international laws," Shtayyeh said.

At a Tuesday U.N. Security Council meeting, meanwhile, acting U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Richard Mills doubled down on the Biden administration's support for Israeli-Arab normalization. At the same time, he revealed that the administration would restore direct ties with Palestinian leadership and restore critical humanitarian assistance frozen under the Trump administration, while at the same time work with both sides of the conflict for a solution.

How exactly the new U.S. president planned to advance long-stalled talks and succeed where many before him have failed remained yet to be seen, however, especially as Israel grew comfortable with increasingly brazen policies undermining Palestinian sovereignty.

In a statement sent to Newsweek, State Department spokesperson Ned Price previewed the Biden administration's strategy of ensuring close ties with Israel while also seeking to bring Palestinians aboard for negotiations as a path for their statehood.

"The U.S. commitment to Israel's security is sacrosanct," Price said. "We stand by the two-state solution because it is the best way to ensure Israel's future as a Jewish and democratic state, while upholding the Palestinians' legitimate aspirations to self-determination in a viable, sovereign state of their own."