The Palestinians following Biden's victory: Hope in the short run, a potential cascade of expectations in the long run


By Dr. Michael Milshtein​​ | November 20, 2020

Joh Biden and Abu Mazen
Photos: | Gage Skidmore - CC BY-SA 2.0


The presidential elections in the U.S. were perceived by the Palestinians as the final hope capable of saving them from their present strategic low point. And indeed, prior to the elections – and, in fact, at this time too – the Palestinians are grappling with a multidimensional crisis: the peace negotiations have been in a deep freeze for years; the possibility of achieving the independent state goal is constantly receding; the internal rift between the Gaza Strip and the West Bank is deepening; the Arab and international arenas' interest in and attention to the Palestinian issue are lessening – whether due to despair of a prolonged conflict, or because their focus has shifted to issues perceived as more severe; and the disintegration of what, for many years, were the Palestinian problem's underlying assumptions, primarily the demand that normalization between Israel and the Arab world, or the change in Jerusalem's status, only be achieved once the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been resolved.


President Trump was regarded by Palestinians as a key source of most of the negative trends they have been experiencing in recent years. According to Abu Mazen's approach, the U.S. president sided with Israel completely, and ceased to play the part of a fair mediator. Moreover, he was described as having advanced Israeli interests at the expense of Palestinian ones, as clearly seen by the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem in May 2018, and the tailwind provided to the normalization of relations between the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan, and Israel. The growing Palestinian rage toward Washington has led to the severing of relations between them, and the cessation of U.S. aid to the Palestinian Authority.


It is no wonder, therefore, that almost all responses in the Palestinian system to Biden's win of the presidential race reflected contentedness. The Palestinian discourse does not reflect euphoria, so far, at least, but it does reflect hope for a reversal of the negative trend that characterized the Palestinian-American relations in recent years.


In this context, the Palestinian media and political discourse prominently features talk of the changes that will take place shortly after Biden will enter the oval office, primarily: the official renewal of relations between the parties; the reopening of the Palestinian representation in Washington as well as U.S. consulate in Jerusalem; the renewal of U.S. aid to the Palestinians, particularly to the UNRWA, currently grappling with a deep budgetary deficit. In the long range, the Palestinians also believe that pressure will be exerted on Israel with regard to its construction efforts in the West Bank.


In the immediate future, it seems that Biden's victory may contribute to calming tensions in the Palestinian system that have been growing in recent months against the backdrop of COVID-19, its economic and social implications, the ongoing alienation between Israel and the Palestinian Authority (since May 2020), as well as the Palestinian rage following the expedited normalization process.


Biden's win seems to lessen the basic Palestinian concern that unilateral moves will be advanced, and change reality to the Palestinians' detriment. To some extent, fewer belligerent declarations have already been made by PA officials prepared to turn to extreme measures, such as a practical implementation of the reconciliation agreement with Hamas, promoting "popular resistance" (meaning demonstrations, rallies and riots) against Israel, or even collapsing the Palestinian government.


Moreover, Biden's victory provided a strategic opportunity for both Israel and the Palestinians. The shift in Washington served as a "convenient and respectable ladder" for Abu Mazen to get off the "high horse of severed relations with Israel", which has been negatively impacting the already harsh civic and economic reality in the West Bank. The win allows Palestinians to receive Israeli collected revenues once again, accounting for 64% of the Palestinian budget, and essential to the payment of public sector employees' salaries (their wages have been cut recently, making them extremely disgruntled).


Many in the top Palestinian echelon view the return to coordination, which was renewed on November 17, as an important existential interest. They fear that, if the crisis continued, it would have a detrimental effect on the Palestinian government's stability, as well as the civilians' affiliation with it. The latter have grown accustomed to contacting the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories (COGAT) directly in recent months, as it often provides the civic services previously offered by the PA. The renewing of ties is certainly an important Israeli interest as well, for it views the preservation of civil life fabric in the West Bank and security coordination as the cornerstones of strategic regional stability.


However, in the longer range, a cascade of expectations may develop among Palestinians following the rise of a new U.S. administration. Immediate accomplishments, particularly the renewal of ties and reopening of representations, could evoke the Palestinian desire to derail other dramatic changes advanced during the Trump administration, primarily the relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, and the normalization.


At least at present, the U.S. administration has no intention of going back on its decision regarding the embassy – as Biden himself said during his election campaign – nor are the Arab states considering annulling the agreements they signed with Israel. The Palestinians also do not believe that this objective will be achievable in the near future. However, should other accomplishments be made, the Palestinians may develop an aspiration to derail the other two strategic changes too.


The Palestinian cascade of expectations could also be contributed to by Biden's belated addressing of their issues. It is highly reasonable that Biden will dedicate his time early on in his term to issues perceived by Americans as more important, such as the COVID-19 crisis, the American economy, domestic social and political tensions, reinforming relations with international powers, as well as addressing other global pressure points like Iran, Syria, and North Korea.


Israel was wise to utilize the circumstances created to renew relations and coordination with the Palestinians. Next, Israel should examine how to utilize the new circumstances to deepen moderate Arab states' impact on the Palestinian system, primarily that of Saudi Arabia and the UAE. The two are pressured by Biden's win, fearing that he may renew negotiations with Iran, and press them to advance democracy and individual liberties. Convincing them to deepen their economic impact and political clout on the Palestinian Authority may increase their equity in Washington's view, and contribute to reducing the influence of other powers on the Palestinian system, primarily Qatar and Turkey.


In any event, it is vitally important already at this point to coordinate expectations with the Palestinians to prevent a future cascade of expectations, whether via direct discourse between Israel and the top Palestinian echelon, or by attempting to impact the next administration's perception of the Palestinian issue.




Authored by Dr. Michael Milshtein, a senior researcher at the Institute for Policy and Strategy (IPS), Reichman University.



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