WASHINGTON – President Joe Biden never promised a wholesale reversal of his predecessor’s approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But he blasted many of the Trump administration’s decisions as “destructive” and “short-sighted.”
Four months into his term, Biden has left many of President Donald Trump’s pro-Israel policies in place – leading to frustration in Washington and the Middle East.
During his four years in office, Trump broke with long-standing U.S. positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – offering full-throated support for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s hard-line agenda, greenlighting Jewish settlement expansion and severing diplomatic channels with the Palestinians, among other steps.
The spark that ignited the conflict was an effort by Jewish settlers to evict Palestinian families from their homes in East Jerusalem. It has spiraled into a deadly military confrontation between Hamas, the terrorist group that controls Gaza, and Israeli military forces.
Saturday, an Israeli airstrike on a refugee camp killed at least 10 Palestinians from an extended family, mostly children, the deadliest single strike of the current conflict, according to The Associated Press. By Monday, at least 200 Palestinians had been killed and eight Israelis.
“The current violent escalation shows that this is not an issue that can be left on the back burner. It’s not a sustainable status quo,” said Logan Bayroff, vice president of communication for J Street, a left-leaning advocacy group that describes itself as “pro-Israel, pro-peace.”
Here’s a look and what Trump did and how Biden’s position differs – or not.
Embassy moved to Jerusalem and hasn’t moved back
Fulfilling a campaign promise, Trump broke with decades of Washington policy and moved the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem in 2018, backing Israel’s claim on the disputed capital and holy city for Jews, Muslims and Christians. The decision thrilled his base of conservative and right-wing Israel supporters and evangelical Christians but brought a wave of criticism from the international community and the Palestinians.
Trump’s decision followed through on a 1995 law that recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, which Biden voted for as a senator. Successive presidents delayed the move, aligning with the international view that the holy city’s status should be negotiated between the Israelis and Palestiniansas part of a broader peace deal that would establish a Palestinian state.
The Biden administration signaled it has no intention of moving the American embassy back to Tel Aviv. Biden, as a presidential candidate, said he would keep the embassy in Jerusalem despite calling Trump’s decision “short-sighted and frivolous.”
The administration has been silent about what it defines as Jerusalem’s boundaries, part of a larger U.S. policy vacuum feeding into the situation on the ground, said Khaled Elgindy, director of the program on Palestinian-Israeli affairs at the Middle East Institute.
Though Israel claims Jerusalem as its capital, the Palestinians claim East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state. The United States is one of a handful of countries to recognize Israel’s claim to the entirety of the city.
East Jerusalem, which Israel occupied along with the West Bank, Gaza, most of the Syrian Golan Heights and the Egyptian Sinai peninsula in 1967, has become a flashpoint for unrest and protests, where the threat of eviction of Palestinian families exacerbated the violence.
“There’s no credible way to have a Palestinian state without a sovereign capital in East Jerusalem,” Elgindy said. “It changes the way that you address the expulsions. If you do recognize it, then what’s happening is not a property dispute, it’s settlement activity, and it’s illegal under international law.”
White House press secretary Jen Psaki sidestepped a question about the president’s position on East Jerusalem as part of a two-state solution.
“That is an issue that has long been and will always be for discussion between two parties in a negotiation about the path forward, so I don’t have an additional position,” she said Friday.
The administration has been evasive about whether it plans to reopen the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem, which had served as the White House’s main channel of communication to the Palestinians.
The Trump administration shuttered the consulate in 2019 and merged it with the embassy to serve as one diplomatic mission. Psaki did not answer questions Wednesday on whether the administration would reopen that diplomatic facility.
‘Deal of the century’
Like his predecessors, Trump said he wanted to broker an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, and he tasked his son-in-law, Jared Kusher, to tackle one of the world’s longest-running and most intractable disputes.
Trump initially waffled on whether he supported a “two-state solution,” a cornerstone of U.S. policy for decades. The two-state solution envisions a negotiated settlement leading to an independent Palestinian nation alongside Israel and sharing a capital of East Jerusalem.
In an early meeting with Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu at the White House, Trump said he was neutral on the issue.
“So I’m looking at two-state or the one-state,” Trump said in 2017. “I’m happy with the one they like best,” he said, referring to the Israelis and Palestinians.
When Kushner unveiled his much-delayed peace proposal – the “deal of the century” – it endorsed a two-state solution, though critics said the plan was definitively pro-Israel. The plan was developed without any Palestinian input; Palestinian leaders refused to deal with the Trump administration because they viewed him and his advisers as biased toward Israel.
The proposal – which went nowhere – would have more than doubled territory under Palestinian control, but it also would have recognized Israeli sovereignty over major settlement blocs in the West Bank, a scenario many Palestinians would find difficult to accept. It would have limited Palestinians to specific parts of East Jerusalem, leaving Israel in sole charge of holy sites that are sacred to both religions.
The Biden administration supports a two-state solution, though Biden has not made solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict a priority.
Though many presidents named high-wattage special envoys to jump-start the peace process, Biden has not done so. Amid the current conflagration, the State Department dispatched a deputy assistant secretary for Israeli and Palestinian Affairs, Hady Amr, to the region to help mediate.
Golan Heights policy left in place
In March 2019, Trump overturned decades of U.S. policy by recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights, a disputed territory that Israel seized from Syrian control during the Six-Day War in 1967.
Previous U.S. administrations labeled the territory as “occupied” and refused to recognize Israel’s forcible annexation. Trump’s move prompted a rebuke from the United Nations Security Council and put the United States at odds with allies such as France and the United Kingdom, which see Israel’s annexation as illegal.
Trump argued the territory is critical to Israel’s security, and Netanyahu welcomed the move as historic.
In February, Secretary of State Antony Blinken suggested Biden would leave the Trump-era policy in place, though he did not fully endorse the annexation either.
“As a practical matter, the control of the Golan in that situation, I think, remains of real importance to Israel’s security,” Blinken told CNN in February. “Legal questions are something else, and over time if the situation were to change in Syria, that’s something we look at, but we are nowhere near that.”
Biden restores aid for Palestinian refugees
In 2018, the Trump administration moved to zero out funding for the U.N. aid program for Palestinian refugees, part of a broader policy restricting assistance to the West Bank and Gaza.
The U.N. Relief and Works Agency provides health care to more than 3 million Palestinians, education assistance to 500,000 children, micro-loans to 400,000 beneficiaries and other aid.
Trump’s State Department spokeswoman, Heather Nauert, said that the United States shouldered a “very disproportionate share” of the cost for UNRWA and that the group classified too many Palestinians as refugees.
In April, the Biden administration announced it would restore funding for the relief agency and other programs, sending $75 million in economic and development assistance to the West Bank and Gaza, $10 million for peace-building programs through the U.S. Agency for International Development, and $150 million for UNRWA.
The Trump administration trumpeted the so-called Abraham Accords, a series of agreements that formalized diplomatic relations between Israel and four Arab countries – the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan – as one of its greatest foreign policy achievements and a step toward peace in the region.
The accords marked a major geopolitical shift in the Middle East as Arab nations once unified behind a push for Palestinian statehood solidified their ties with Israel. But the UAE and Bahrain were never at war with Israel, and their leaders had been quietly inching toward closer relations with the Jewish state for years. Though Trump and Netanyahu billed the accords as a “peace deal,” the agreements largely sidelined the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“That was always somewhere between spin and wishful thinking. They were about bilateral relations of the parties that signed them. They’re not peace agreements,” Elgindy said. “To the contrary, I think they were designed by Netanyahu and Trump to marginalize the Palestinians as both a people and as an issue.”
Blinken told CNN in February the administration applauded the accords, calling them “an important step forward” but hardly a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Whenever we see Israel and its neighbors normalizing relations, improving relations, that’s good for Israel, it’s good for the other countries in question, it’s good for overall peace and security,” Blinken said. “That doesn’t mean that the challenges of the relationship between Israel and the Palestinians go away. … They’re not going to miraculously disappear. And so we need to engage on that.”
As part of a deal with the UAE, Israel agreed to temporarily halt its controversial plan to annex parts of the West Bank, land that Palestinians see as vital to their hopes of a future state. Less than a year later, the signatory nations find themselves in an uncomfortable position as the notion that the accords would give them leverage over Israel to aid in the Palestinian push ring hollow.
“The pretense that this was ever going to facilitate or help the Israeli-Palestinian peace track has now fallen away,” Elgindy said.
The Arab world has watched Israeli ground troops mass on the border with Gaza, rockets fired indiscriminately at Israeli towns and raids on the Al-Aqsa Mosque compound in Jerusalem during the holiest time of the Muslim calendar.
The Biden administration has taken a back-seat approach to the spate of violence, emphasizing its traditional position of de-escalation, but the language is inconsistent with the president’s promise of prioritizing human rights and restoring international rules-based order, Elgindy said.
“If the United States isn’t putting up a clear red light, then it’s by default a green light for Israel,” he said.
Contributing: Kim Hjelmgaard