For Palestinians, Biden’s win is a good step. But it’s just a step.

Mussa Qawasma/Reuters
A Palestinian passes an anti-Trump mural painted on a section of the Israeli security barrier, in Bethlehem in the occupied West Bank, Nov. 2, 2020. While Palestinians were mainly pleased the president lost the election, they want more from Joe Biden than just turning back the clock.

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A widely heard refrain in the West Bank has long been: “Democrats or Republicans, they are all the same” in their Mideast policies and approach to the Palestinians.

But this year many were desperate to see the back of a president who had pressured and boycotted Palestinian leadership, cut off aid and development projects, moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and was seen as a close ally of Israel's right-wing prime minister.

Why We Wrote This

From frustration to hope can be a long distance to travel. Many Palestinians, happy to bid President Trump farewell, associate Joe Biden with previous disappointments and are looking for a new formula for U.S. relations.

Yet widespread relief among Palestinians over President Donald Trump’s defeat is giving way to rising skepticism over President-elect Joe Biden's ability to reset bilateral relations. Many Palestinians say more is needed than simply a repudiation of Mr. Trump’s policies. Instead, they are calling for a deep recalibration of U.S.-Palestinian ties to unlock change in the region.

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the PLO’s executive committee, says she has only modest expectations. “There has to be a candid and clear reassessment to forge a new relationship between us and the U.S. without going through Israel,” she says. “A relationship without being based on what can we do for Israel, or how can we deliver for Israel. It has to be a whole new approach.”

It’s not uncommon to hear American accents here. Many West Bank residents have lived in the United States or have family there. In U.S. election years, the accents are impossible to avoid.

In the days leading up to and following the November election, with TV sets and Facebook feeds dominated by coverage of the U.S. race and the vote-counting dramas, everyone seemed to be weighing in on the results and their impact on the occupied Palestinian territories.

A widely heard refrain in the West Bank has long been: “Democrats or Republicans, they are all the same” in their Mideast policies and approach to the Palestinians.

Why We Wrote This

From frustration to hope can be a long distance to travel. Many Palestinians, happy to bid President Trump farewell, associate Joe Biden with previous disappointments and are looking for a new formula for U.S. relations.

But this year many were desperate to see the back of a president who had pressured and boycotted Palestinian leadership, cut off U.S. aid and development projects, withdrawn funding from the United Nations’ Palestinian refugee agency, recognized Israeli sovereignty over occupied territories, moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel to Jerusalem, and was seen as a close ally and enabler of Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli right-wing prime minister.

Yet widespread relief among Palestinians in the West Bank over President Donald Trump’s defeat is giving way to rising skepticism over whether President-elect Joe Biden will have the ability or political will to reset bilateral relations dramatically altered by his predecessor.

While many Palestinians are eager to see the end of the current administration’s pressure campaign and a resumption of economic aid, they say more is needed than simply a repudiation of Mr. Trump’s policies or a return to the pre-2017 status quo.

Instead, they are calling for a deep recalibration of U.S.-Palestinian ties to unlock change in the region – a change many doubt a Biden administration can deliver.

Nevertheless, for the past few weeks, the relief on Ramallah’s streets has been palpable. Many see Mr. Biden’s win, for instance, as a decisive blow to Mr. Netanyahu’s threats to annex the Jordan Valley.

“The gray skies have cleared,” declares Ahmed Zayed, a former Fatah member who peppers his remarks with English words delivered in a distinctly California accent.

“This is finally the end of Trump’s ‘ultimate deal,’” he says, referring to the president’s much-touted Israeli-Palestinian peace plan. The deal pledged economic benefits for Palestinians in return for a pathway to a state, but on less land than provided for by pre-1967 borders – a formula widely rejected by the Palestinian public.

What can Biden change?

Yet with the rush of relief over Mr. Trump’s defeat beginning to fade, few are certain as to what exactly a President Biden can or will change in U.S.-Palestinian relations.

“Everyone in the world is happy that Trump lost the election, but Biden will not undo the political achievements that Trump did for Netanyahu, especially on the recognition of Jerusalem [as Israel’s capital] or the embassy move,” says Samir Idris, a former unionist and avowed leftist, who believes Palestinians’ U.S. election euphoria will be short-lived.

“The way I see it, Biden’s win has helped both the Palestinians and the Israelis; the return of [security] coordination between the Palestinian Authority and Israel will lead to economic relief for the PA and will relieve some pressure on Israel.”

Fatima Abdulkarim
Palestinian taxi driver Ahmed Zayed, a former member of Fatah, at a taxi station in the West Bank town of Al Bireh, near Ramallah, Nov. 23, 2020. The election of Joe Biden, he says, means "the gray skies have cleared" for Palestinians.

Yet Palestinians say the prospect of a return to a pre-Trump status-quo – one in which Palestinians and Israelis maintain a fraught security relationship amid settlement-building and cycles of promises for talks initiated by the U.S. that get no closer to a solution – is not the breakthrough needed.

“Politically, there is a clear difference between Biden and Trump, but for the Palestinians, they both favor Israel over us,” says Mr. Zayed, who in his Fatah days was director-general of a Palestinian ministry, but today drives a taxi. 

Sarah Abu Suraya, a 26-year-old schoolteacher from East Jerusalem, believes President Trump and Mr. Netanyahu created a new reality on the ground and established de facto Israeli sovereignty over the contested city and areas in the West Bank.

“I don’t think that changes on the ground will come anytime soon, especially not in Jerusalem,” says Ms. Abu Suraya, who expects a Biden administration to return to a status quo of “managing the conflict” between Palestinians and Israel rather than concrete diplomatic steps toward a solution. 

“At the end of the day, this will take us back to the cycle of evasion and the endless process of relaunching bilateral talks,” says Mr. Idris, the former union activist, waving his hands in the air in frustration.

Lingering disappointment

In a September pre-election survey by the Ramallah-based Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, only 21% of Palestinians said they believed American policy would change for the better under a President Biden, while 34% said a Biden administration would “not change current American policies” toward the Palestinians. And perhaps reflecting what many Palestinians say is lingering disappointment with the Obama administration, a plurality – 35% – even said American policy would be in fact worse under Mr. Biden.

The pessimism is not due to a lack of familiarity.

According to Ghassan Khatib, a pollster and political science professor at Birzeit University outside Ramallah, Palestinians closely follow U.S. political developments due to their direct impact on their daily lives.

The Palestinian public and leadership, he says, are hopeful Mr. Biden will vocally oppose the expansion of Jewish settlements and reverse the block on $230 million in annual aid and projects in the occupied territories, which could ignite a moribund economy in which West Bank joblessness hovers at 25%.

Yet few are optimistic that President-elect Biden can undo Mr. Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital – a historic U.S. shift that deprived the Palestinians of a diplomatic bargaining chip – or even successfully restart peace talks between Israelis and the Palestinians.

“The gap between Israelis and Palestinians is larger than the efforts that could bridge it,” Professor Khatib says, noting the rightward shift in Israeli politics and the political mainstreaming of Israeli settler groups. “Palestinians cannot go back to talks without halting settlement activity, and Israel politically cannot stop its settlement activity.

“We are likely to go back to talking about resuming negotiations and holding meetings about talking – at most,” he notes.

No magic wand

Hanan Ashrawi, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s executive committee, says she has only modest expectations from Mr. Biden.

“We have a long wish list from the Biden administration because there has been a lot of damage,” she says, “but Biden does not have a magic wand to unscramble the eggs” broken by Mr. Trump’s dramatic altering of U.S. policy.

Leaders in Ramallah expect Mr. Biden to undo some of President Trump’s executive orders, but think he’s likely unwilling to take on more permanent changes that are popular in Congress, such as recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, location of the U.S. Embassy, and the shuttering of the PLO’s office in Washington.

The Palestinian Authority is eyeing economic relief from a resumption of U.S. aid that, along with the recent release of Palestinian tax revenues collected by Israel, could create breathing room for the leadership and perhaps boost public support for resuming bilateral negotiations with Israelis. 

But rather than pushing for a shopping list of gestures from the Biden administration, Ms. Ashrawi and others say they are seeking a deep rethink of U.S.-Palestinian relations.

With Mr. Biden’s unveiling last week of a foreign-policy team full of Obama administration alumni, Palestinians see a return to a mainstream foreign-policy establishment that although not hostile to Palestinians is unlikely to deliver the reset in ties they view as critical.

Leaders say they are prepared to launch a dialogue with a U.S. audience more open to change, such as the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, in order to prod the moderate Biden administration.

“There has to be a candid and clear reassessment to forge a new relationship between us and the U.S. without going through Israel,” Ms. Ashrawi says. “A relationship without being based on what can we do for Israel, or how can we deliver for Israel. It has to be a whole new approach.”

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