Three days away from the US elections, Democrats and Republicans are both scrambling for their final votes. Four years of Trump’s presidency have changed the political landscape, with the country now more divided than ever along partisan lines. If Americans are preoccupied by this year’s vote, so are countries directly impacted by US policies. For some, the difference between a more left-wing or conservative president in the White House will have a greater impact on their country than their own government. This is arguably the case for the Palestinians.
With only 33% trusting the current government, a frozen peace process with Israel, regular bombings in the besieged Gaza strip and a slow annexation of the West Bank, Palestinians now turn to the US elections with hopes but also concerns.
“If things are going to change in the United States, I think this will reflect itself directly on the Palestinian-Israeli relationship,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said during a meeting with European legislators in early October. “And it will reflect itself also on the bilateral Palestinian-American relationship.”
Under Trump, the U.S. has turned its back on the Palestinians
Through its economic and humanitarian help, the U.S. has long been the backbone of the Palestinian economy. Since the Oslo Accords of 1994, Washington has been the largest international donor to the Palestinian Authority (PA), with bilateral assistance to the Palestinians totalling over $5 billion. It has also given the UN Refugee Work Agency for Palestinians Refugees (UNRWA) over $6 billion since 1950.
Trump’s arrival in power changed this dynamic and has come to symbolize a turn for the worse for Palestinians. Trump declared his wish to cut funding to the PA early in his presidency, tweeting that Washington was sending millions “for nothing” with “no appreciation or respect in return.” The US ceased all USAID assistance to Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza in 2017, and later cut UNRWA funds. Before 2018, US aid to Palestine represented more than $600 million yearly. Now, it barely accounts for $65 million a year.
The current presidency has paved the way for a new reality in the region, in which geopolitical alliances trump the plight of Palestinians. The recent US-brokered Abraham Accords between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and now Sudan have been lauded as a beacon of hope for peace in the region, but they have isolated the Palestinians. The UAE welcomed the accords as a way to restrain the building of illegal settlements in the West Bank. Yet, days after the approval of the peace deal, Israel announced the establishment of 1,000 settlement units in the occupied West Bank.
In a recent interview with the Institut Montaigne, researcher and author Dr Alaa Tartir claimed that “it is a myth to think that the so-called Abraham Accords stopped, or was even linked to, the Israeli annexation plan of Palestinian West Bank territories.”
Trump’s 2020 vision for Israeli-Palestinian peace, providing for Israel to annex 30% of the West Bank and for a smaller Palestinian state, is very much alive.
While many praised the Accords, they marked the end of the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative that set the tone for dialogues with Israel. Normalizing relations between Israel and the Arab states will no longer be conditional on a full withdrawal from the territories captured in the 1967 war, including Gaza, the West Bank and the Golan Heights. It will no longer require a “just settlement” of the Palestinian refugee issue or the establishment of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.
Sudan is the last country to have normalized its relations with Israel. In return, Trump has rescinded Sudan’s designation as a state sponsor of terrorism. Saudi Arabia might follow Sudan’s lead after the US elections. These recognitions will unlikely be withdrawn should Trump lose his re-election bid to Biden, whose campaign already announced that “it is good to see others in the Middle East recognizing Israel.”
The 2002 Arab initiative no longer stands. Neither does the idea that Arab states stand together to protect the Palestinian cause.
Biden, symbol of hope amidst uncertainty
Palestinians want no more of a Trump presidency, and their Prime Minister Shtayyeh is the first among them:
“If we are going to live another four years with President Trump, God help us, God help you and God help the whole world.”
During a virtual conference with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in May, he had already declared that “no matter how negatively Palestinians view Biden, the destruction a second Trump term could cause to them and their cause is unimaginable.”
Palestinian-American communities across the U.S. have therefore called for voters to support Joe Biden. Yet many are also skeptical of the Democratic candidate’s capacity to represent the hopes of Palestinians.
The United States has been deeply linked with Israel since its creation. As a young 30-year-old senator, Joe Biden was introduced to Israel’s vulnerability during a 1973 encounter with Golda Meir. Having just driven from Cairo, he listened as a chain-smoking Meir painted a bleak picture of the threats facing Israel. Biden later recalled that the odds “scared the hell out of [him]”. The meeting, in the lead-up to the Yom Kippur War, was a seminal moment in the freshman politician’s career and helped define Biden’s policy towards Israel for the next half-century. Biden has been a key player in bilateral relations between the two countries. In 2016, he spearheaded the unprecedented $38 billion military aid package to Israel, the largest in US history.
Biden has vowed that, if elected, he will reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem and the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) diplomatic mission in Washington. He is also looking to restore bilateral economic assistance to Palestinians to what it was before 2016, under certain conditions. But despite his opposition to Trump’s “short-sighted and frivolous” decision to move the US embassy to Jerusalem, Biden indicated he would not move the embassy back to Tel Aviv. Congress had authorized the move back in 1995, with Biden voting in favour, but a succession of presidents from both parties had delayed it. It remains to be seen whether Biden’s efforts on the Palestinian issue will go beyond restoring the status quo before Trump.
US reaction to recent human rights abuses
On October 21, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo was asked about Maher al-Akhras during a press briefing. Al-Akhras is a 46-year-old Palestinian father of six, who was arrested in Nablus in July and is currently held in administrative detention with no charge. Now on the 94th day of a hunger strike, he has been described as “on the verge of death” by Israeli rights group B’Tselem. “Israel has the right to defend itself,” Pompeo answered. Al-Akhras’s case does not stand alone. As of August, more than 350 Palestinians were being held without charge.
The U.S. is aware of the Israeli authorities’ human rights violations. A 2019 Department of State report states that the Israeli government acknowledges having used “exceptional measures” during interrogations. Among others, these measures include beatings, threats of rape and physical harm, sleep deprivation, and threats against families or detainees. The same year, Amnesty International reported that four Palestinians had died in custody allegedly as a result of torture or other ill-treatment by Israeli forces.
As of yet, Trump has applied no pressure on Israeli authorities regarding human rights abuses. His administration is even considering labeling organizations like Amnesty International and Oxfam as anti-Semitic for their documentation of Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians. It is unlikely that a Biden presidency would change much in this regard. Last year, he had criticized Bernie Sanders’ call to leverage military aid to Israel, calling it a “gigantic mistake” and “absolutely outrageous”. On August 26, running mate Kamala Harris reaffirmed that if elected, the Democratic Party leader will not put any condition on aid: “[Biden] will not tie security assistance to any political decisions that Israel makes.”
On June 26, over 120 Palestinian Americans from various fields of academia, politics, and community service published a document titled, “Palestinian Americans’ Statement of Principles and Policies for 2020 Elections”. In a desperate plea to be heard by the candidates, they call for the US Embassy to be moved back to Tel Aviv, something neither Trump nor Biden intend. They also state that pro-BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) activity does not equate to anti-Semitism. Biden has been unequivocal in condemning BDS, stating in his Joe Biden and the Jewish Community Plan that should he be elected, his government would “firmly reject the BDS movement — which singles out Israel and too often veers into anti-Semitism — and fight other efforts to delegitimize Israel on the global stage.”
For Palestinians, this election is about the lesser of two evils
Palestinians fear their voices will not be heard by either of the two candidates during the next administration. While Biden affirmed his wish to re-establish cordial relations with the PA and restore economic help, neither he nor Trump is eager to truly reverse the fate of the Palestinians.
In a recent interview with Democracy Now!, Palestinian activist and writer Noura Erakat declared that “Palestine does not exist in isolation but as part of the Middle East.”
With a fragmented Arab world stuck between joining the US-led alliance against Iran or defending the Palestinian cause, and both US presidential candidates unwilling to challenge their key ally in the region, once again, Palestinians risk being left isolated. Their only hope is that a President Biden will allow them to sit at the negotiating table, alongside Israel and other regional powers.