No president has done more to support Arab Americans and to stand by the principles of peace and justice for Palestinians than Joe Biden. He has done even more than Bill Clinton and far more than Barack Obama, whose political career is fondly recalled in the heart of the Palestinian American community in Chicago.
When the opportunity arises, if and when tensions around the world ease, Biden is the most likely candidate to usher in a new drive that could surmount the obstacles that prevent Israeli-Palestinian peace.
He has the credentials to make it happen by reassuring Israelis of his support for their country, while being tolerant and patient with the Palestinians, whose government and society is oppressed by military occupation and restrictions.
I believe Biden has the best chance to bring real peace to the Middle East — a peace that includes restoring the drive for a two-state solution or possibly even a two-federation agreement, in which the two sides share resources and ease restrictions but maintain individual identities.
Biden’s strategies may be more effective than those of his predecessors. Although Clinton hosted negotiations between Israel and Palestine in the 1990s, that peace process was driven by the Palestinian and Israeli leaders’ desire to make peace.
Clinton was smart enough to exploit the desire of Palestinian Liberation Organization leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to achieve peace, but he was not the catalyst. In the end, as the peace process seemed set to collapse, Clinton turned toward his political needs and supported the Israeli claim that the Palestinians were to blame. In reality, Clinton was desperate to do something to offset the turbulence of the Monica Lewinsky scandal.
As a state legislator, Obama was always close to the leaders of Chicago’s Palestinian American community and frequently spoke at their events, giving the community false hope that one day he might help the Palestinians achieve statehood. Once in office, however, Obama turned away from the Palestinians, paying them little more than lip service. Instead of restraining the Israeli bombardment of Palestinian targets during its many attacks on the Gaza Strip, he allowed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to leverage the violence as a means to pressure the Palestinians. It did not work and many Palestinians died during his time in office.
Now, 16 months into Biden’s presidency, he has taken some strong stands for peace, including embracing the two-state solution when everyone else wants to walk away from it. Biden has not pushed the Abraham Accords, which were orchestrated by former President Donald Trump’s ultraconservative son-in-law Jared Kushner for all the wrong reasons.
He has taken some strong stands for peace, including embracing the two-state solution when everyone else wants to walk away from it.
Instead, Biden has initiated something none of his predecessors did — an attempt to build relations with America’s growing Arab and Muslim populations. Even though their numbers are still relatively small, with the US hosting about 4.5 million mostly Christian Arabs, Biden offered them a “partnership” that opened doors to Arab involvement not only in his administration but also to engage in pursuing a genuine peace; one that was worth more than a few shekels or the publicity that was generated from some quickly drafted “agreements.”
Those Arab Americans who continue to flourish in the State Department are laying a foundation, along with progressive Jewish leaders, that could lead to a real peace accord that would boost Israeli prosperity and Palestinian independence.
A seasoned politician who understands diplomacy, Biden has also allowed the Arab world more freedom to pursue their own foreign policies, even when they might rub the West the wrong way.
Both Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris have been very strong pro-Israel champions and maybe that is why it makes it easier for them to pursue a more balanced strategy that benefits Palestinians. Biden once described himself as a “Zionist” and Harris was a powerful advocate who frequently spoke at conferences held by Israel’s far-right-wing lobby group the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, who is Jewish, also has more latitude to pursue diplomacy that gives Palestinians more credibility.
It was Biden who restored funding to UNRWA and other Palestinian refugee support organizations. It was Biden who developed a deliberate but patient strategy to reopen the US Consulate in Jerusalem to address Palestinian needs. Biden tapped two veteran State Department diplomats — Hady Amr, who is an Arab, and Yael Lempert, who is Jewish — to pursue these goals and more. When violence erupted last month after Israeli settlers and right-wing activists swarmed Al-Aqsa Mosque, Biden sent Amr and Lempert to calm the two sides and, for the most part, it worked.
Right now, Biden and America are intensely focused on the Russian war in Ukraine, the economic turmoil created by the COVID-19 pandemic and the looming midterm election battle that will decide who controls Congress for the next two years. But once these issues are under control, there will be more time to focus attention on nurturing a new wave of Israeli-Palestinian peace. And no one is better positioned to do that than Biden.
• Ray Hanania