- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 19, 2020

It may seem long for Americans, but transition to a new administration in Washington feels like an eternity for many Palestinians.

Democrats may be impatient to inaugurate former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, but it’s been four long years of economic, diplomatic and political setbacks for Palestinian leaders as President Trump has titled heavily toward Israel, shattered precedents undergirding the Palestinian case for statehood and forged ties between Jerusalem and leading Arab states even as the Palestinian cause was ignored.

Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh, speaking to a Washington think tank this week, welcomed the hoped-for change in leadership in Washington.

“The [Biden] administration is talking about resetting things, resetting international relations, resetting the relationship with China, resetting the relationship with the Middle East,” he said.

“We need somebody to reset things. For us, resetting things with the Palestinians, what we want, frankly, is a bilateral American-Palestinian relationship that is not Israeli-centric.”

Forging a close alliance with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Mr. Trump has handed Israel a steady stream of diplomatic wins since taking office, moving the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, cutting aid to Palestinian organizations, breaking with almost every U.S. ally in recognizing Israel‘s sovereignty over the Syria-claimed Golan Heights, and issuing a new peace plan that embraced expansive Israeli settlement claims in land once thought reserved for a separate Palestinian state.

The Palestinians literally lost their voice in Washington when Mr. Trump in 2018 ordered the closure of the Palestinian Authority’s diplomatic mission here.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo expanded the list of benefits on a trip to Israel Thursday, becoming the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit an Israeli West Bank settlement and announcing a new U.S. campaign against the Palestinian-organized global boycott and disinvestment campaign against Israeli goods and service.

The U.S., Mr. Pompeo said, “stands strongly” for legal recognition of the settlements” that can be done “in a way that are lawful and appropriate and proper.”

With Mr. Biden on record expressing skepticism about Israel‘s aggressive settlement-building plan, Palestinian officials have shown a surprising level of flexibility on a peace deal, banking on a new U.S. administration to rebalance American diplomacy in the long-running debate over a future Palestinian state.

Mr. Shtayyeh this week announced that Palestine and Israel are both prepared to strike an agreement to resume diplomatic cooperation on security after months of frozen relations.

Israel is ready to commit itself to the signed agreements with us,” Mr. Shtayyeh said during a virtual event hosted by the Council on Foreign Relations.

He called the move a “very important step in the right direction,” adding that Palestinian officials will resume talks with Israeli officials on financial, health, and political issues.

The Palestinian Authority suspended ties with Israel back in May in protest of the Netanyahu’s government’s plan to annex Jewish settlements in the West Bank. The plans has since been suspended as part of a U.S.-brokered deal to normalize relations between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

But that normalization deal at the same time shattered another pillar of Palestinian diplomacy — that leading Arab countries would not recognize Israel so long as the Palestinian statehood questions was not resolves.

Doubts on Biden

With COVID-19 raging in the region and the diplomatic road forward cloudy, some leading Palestinians say Mr. Biden will have a hard time recalibrating U.S. Middle East policy.

“If you think our situation was complicated it’s now more complicated,” Mustafa Barghouti, general secretary of the Palestinian National Initiative, said Thursday during a virtual event hosted by the Middle East Institute.

He said the move to restore links with the Israeli government is creating “very serious negative responses” from some Palestinian political parties.

While some Palestinians eagerly anticipated a Biden win, Mr. Barghouti said his biggest fear is that “we will move back from the situation of the possibility of immediate annexation under Trump to incremental annexation under Biden.”

“I’m so discouraged by this news about renewing relations with Israel without any particular reason,” he continued. “There is no justification for this, this will complicate further the possibility of reunifying Palestinians.”

Mr. Biden has touted his own long pro-Israeli record, and he and Mr. Netanyahu had what the Israeli leader described as a “warm” telephone call earlier this week regarding the U.S. election result.

Just last year, Mr. Biden said in an interview on PBS that while he “strongly opposed” Israel‘s settlement-building binge, “the idea that we would cut off military aid to an ally, our only true, true ally in the entire region, is absolutely preposterous.”

Several Palestinian leaders see Mr. Biden as the lesser of two evils in the U.S. election, but not a president likely to alter fundamentally U.S. ties to Israel.

“From what we heard from Joe Biden and [Vice President-elect] Kamala Harris, I think he will be more balanced and less submissive to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu — thus less harmful to us than Trump,” Nabil Shaath, the special representative of President Mahmoud Abbas, told al Jazeera earlier this month.

The Trump administration has attempted to strike an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal in the form of what Mr. Trump called the “deal of the century” announced in January. But the deal was quickly rejected by Palestinians who claimed they would be forced to make major concessions up front in exchange for vague promises or limited sovereignty down the line.

In an effort to reimagine a rocky relationship with Washington, Palestinian leaders are also reportedly rethinking a key stumbling block to better ties — the controversial practice of providing financial support to Palestinian prisoners jailed by Israeli authorities.

Critics say the so-called “play to slay” policy provides incentives to those who carry out violent attacks, and assures that their families and dependents are taken care of. It has also been reported that the more violent the crime, the higher the payout.

U.S. lawmakers have previously passed legislation that slashes aid to Palestine due to the amount of the payments.

A new proposal, first reported by The New York Times, would instead provide compensation to prisoners based on their financial needs instead of the duration of their time in Israeli jails.

If approved, the new measure could open the door to renewed U.S. cooperation with Palestinian leaders and give Mr. Biden more room to maneuver.

Despite an incoming new president and administration, Mr. Barghouti said that he does not believe that Mr. Trump’s strongly pro-Israeli policies will not end with his departure.

“I do not think that Trump’s plan will disappear with Trump,” he said. “In reality, it is an Israeli plan and Israelis will continue to try to pass it.”

“Without changing the balance of power, without adopting a new alternative strategy to what has failed … and reliance on the United States to be the mediator in the process — without changing that line completely, nothing will change.”

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