Palestinian officials are welcoming the election of President Joe Biden as a potential opportunity to negotiate with Israel on friendlier terms. But they are ultimately looking beyond the United States for international support—with an emphasis on China.
Just roughly a week into the new presidency, Biden administration officials signaled a desire to revamp diplomatic efforts with Palestinians with an announcement that they were reopening the Palestine Liberation Organization’s offices in Washington and resuming assistance to the Palestinian people.
But even with this reversal, the new administration has shown no signs of walking back from some foreign policy decisions made by the Trump White House. Prominent among them is Secretary of State Antony Blinken‘s endorsement of the U.S. recognition of the disputed city of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and his call for an expansion of the Abraham Accords that normalized several Arab nations’ ties with Israel, both of which have left Palestinians feeling sidelined and more isolated than ever.
Facing this new reality, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas prepares to deal with his fourth consecutive U.S. administration with mixed feelings.
Faisal Aranki, a PLO Executive Committee member who chairs the Department of Human Development, told Newsweek that, in some ways, the 16-year leader “seems to be cheering and welcoming Biden’s victory.”
“This was evident in Palestinian officials’ support and praise of Biden’s stance against Israel’s annexation and settlement expansion,” Aranki said. “This may be an indication of the Palestinian Authority’s willingness to finally return to the path of political settlement and negotiations.”
At the same time, Aranki said that Abbas “has become aware that it is wrong to be too biased toward the United States alone, while partnering with the international community and civil society organizations in the world in general.”
And among the most attractive options for Abbas is Washington’s top competitor, Beijing.
“The strength of the relationship between China and the Palestine Liberation Organization in the past, present and the future, calls us to fully cooperate with China,” Aranki said. “I do not need to recall China’s positive and firm stances in support of the legitimate rights of our people, and we are in constant communication with them.”
The People’s Republic has greatly increased its economic and diplomatic capital across the Middle East in recent years, fostering ties with every country in the region, including both the Israelis and Palestinians. Growing Chinese influence worldwide has rattled the U.S., which has urged the international community to push back against Chinese investment, an appeal that has met with mixed results, at best.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying referred to China as “Palestine’s good friend and partner” during a press conference late last month, and Chinese President Xi Jinping weighed in on the issue in December to mark the United Nations-recognized International Day of Solidarity with Palestinian People.
“China attaches great importance to the Palestinian issue, always upholds international justice and morality,” Xi said, “and supports the just cause of the Palestinian people to restore the legitimate rights of their nation as well as efforts conducive to the peaceful settlement of the Palestinian issue.”
He touted the level of assistance Beijing has granted throughout the COVID-19 pandemic to the Palestinian territories, which do not have anything near the top-level access to vaccinations enjoyed by the Israelis.
And Xi said he is prepared to do more, and on a grander scale.
“As a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council and a responsible major country, China is ready to continue to work with the international community to make unremitting efforts for thorough, just and permanent settlement of the Palestinian issue at an early date,” he said, “and make positive contributions to an early realization of peace, stability and development in the Middle East region.”
Unlike the U.S., which has aligned itself firmly with Israel, China has sought to present itself as a neutral actor since recognizing Israel in 1992 after years of having backed the PLO’s armed struggle. China has not historically taken a major role in direct Israel-Palestinian mediation, but even that may be changing.
In a first, China offered to host Israeli-Palestinian peace talks and introduced a four-point plan for settling the conflict in 2017:
1) Advancing the two-state solution based on 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as the capital of a new Palestinian state;
2) Upholding “the concept of common, comprehensive, cooperative and sustainable security, immediately ending Israeli settlement building, taking immediate measures to prevent violence against civilians, and calling for an early resumption of peace talks;
3)Coordinating international efforts to put forward “peace-promoting measures that entail joint participation at an early date;
4) Promoting peace through development and cooperation between the Palestinians and Israel.
Yet Washington still believes it has a unique role in settling the feud.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a foreign policy issue for every post-World War II president of the United States. Some saw breakthroughs in the intractable dispute, with former President Bill Clinton endorsing the two-state solution proposed during the historic Oslo Accords in 1993, but none has ultimately succeeded in bringing the two peoples together.
Today, Palestinians are divided even amongst themselves, both geographically and politically.
The left-wing Fatah—the biggest faction of the PLO—largely controls the West Bank, while the Sunni Islamist movement Hamas rules the Gaza Strip. This split emerged as a result of parliamentary elections in 2006 and, as Palestinians prepare this year to hold their first vote since, they appear to share a willingness to work with other countries, including China.
“We do not care too much about the change of positions of any country,” a Hamas spokesperson told Newsweek. “But we respect all countries which stand with us and support our cause and rights –Iran, Russia, China, etc.”
The spokesperson emphasized that Palestinians would always pursue their cause independently of global opinion, but would welcome appropriate aid from abroad.
“If all the countries around the world, not only the Palestinians, change their positions regarding the Palestinian issue, Palestine will remain Palestine for us,” the spokesperson said. “However, we are open to all initiatives to end the struggle with the Israeli occupation, but they must be just and respect the Palestinians, their history and rights.”
Moscow has actively engaged with Palestinian officials, including those of Fatah and Hamas, and has offered to host a meeting of their delegations and others to discuss efforts to achieve “national unity” among Palestinian parties.
Russia is keenly aware that resolving the Palestinian issue is of critical importance to achieving regional stability.
“The Palestinian issue continues to have a major influence on the overall situation in the Middle East and North Africa,” Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov said during a U.N. Security Council session late last month. “This region is experiencing the disastrous aftermath of the geopolitical experiments in the wake of the ‘rules-based order’ concept promoted by our Western colleagues.”
Moscow’s criticism of Washington’s role in the Middle East dates back to the Cold War, but has been amplified in the 21st century with controversial open-ended U.S. military campaigns across the region.
“Overcoming the inter-Palestinian split will create conditions for a serious dialogue with Israel, stabilise the situation in general, and improve the humanitarian situation in and around the Gaza Strip,” Lavrov said. “We consider it important to step up, as soon as possible, the international efforts supporting the restart of direct Palestinian-Israeli talks in order to resolve a number of fundamental issues concerning a final status.”
The shared PLO-Hamas openness to cooperation with China and Russia did not extend to the revolutionary Shiite Islamic Republic of Iran, despite its enthusiastic support for the Palestinian cause and its resolute opposition to Israeli policies.
“Palestinians have adopted policies of non-alignment at the international level, and non-interference in the internal affairs of any country at the regional level globally and within the Arab world in particular,” PLO Executive Committee member Aranki told Newsweek. “However, when there is friction and significant interference from certain countries which poses a threat to any Arab country, Palestine aligns itself with the Arabs and with our nation.”
As such, he applied this logic to Iran as a result of the ongoing tensions in the Persian Gulf.
“We are not inclined to have any relationship with Iran, which is a decision that extends as far back as the first Gulf War,” Aranki said. “More importantly, we denounce and condemn everything that Iran has done in our region and its dispute with the Gulf countries, led by the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.”
Traditionally, Palestinians would count on fellow Arab states for support—politically, financially and, in the past, militarily. But there’s been a major shift across much of the Arab World toward confronting Iran, against whom they share a common goal with Israel in opposing.
This realignment has had major effects on the Israeli-Palestinian issue as well. Former President Donald Trump capitalized on this trend, banking not only on decades of close bilateral ties with Israel, but also intimate personal relationships between his White House and Israeli President Benjamin Netanyahu‘s administration.
This led to the wholesale endorsement of Israeli policies and a peace plan that the Palestinians immediately rejected, as it would have further splintered the lands over which they exert autonomy. But perhaps the most consequential change in the long term will be the Abraham Accords.
The Trump administration was able to exploit this commonality with Israel and certain Arab states to oversee agreements normalizing its relations with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco. These marked the first active ties established since the peace deals brokered with Egypt and Jordan in 1979 and 1994, respectively.
Deteriorating U.S.-Palestinian ties under Trump also led the former president to cease all aid to Palestinian territories, exacerbating an already fragile humanitarian situation.
“The former President Trump administration was unequivocally biased toward the prime minister Netanyahu and his extremist rightist stance at all levels to the point of starving our people in the refugee camps,” Aranki said, “in addition to positions taken that were completely unfair and unjust, which is not aligned with a country that praises itself on being democratic and respectful of human rights.”
While Aranki hoped that Biden was “committed to a two-state solution, based on two viable neighboring states, living together in peace, security and mutual recognition,” he also wondered whether the U.S. path forward might simply lie with taming Israel’s appetite for concessions.
“Is there any realistic plan by the newly elected American administration to resolve the Palestinian-Israeli conflict?” Aranki asked. “Or is the plan to continue managing the conflict by using incentives to mitigate it so as to decrease the influence of the hostile Israeli rightist, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.”
Hamas was more pessimistic in its outlook toward a government that considers it a foreign terrorist organization.
“Regarding the U.S., we have never thought that it would help us achieve our national goals, because the U.S. has been the main supporter for the Israeli occupation and its violations against the Palestinians,” the Hamas spokesperson said. “It is not keeping a blind eye towards the Israeli violations, but supports them when it blacklists the Palestinian resistance movements, which have never harmed the U.S. or its interests anytime and anywhere.”
Even so, the group maintains that it is not categorically opposed to Washington’s role.
“We will never turn down any logical American initiative should it meet the Palestinian demands and maintain the Palestinian rights and aspiration,” the spokesperson said.
How the Biden administration plans to proceed with tackling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict remains to be seen, but Blinken, national security adviser Jake Sullivan and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin have all shared phone calls with their Israeli counterparts. The man tasked with handling negotiations, State Department Assistant Secretary for Near East Affairs Hady Amr, has also reportedly begun reaching out to Israelis and Palestinians.
The president himself, however, has noticeably not yet spoken with Netanyahu. Nor did the Israeli-Palestinian issue come up in his debut foreign policy speech on Thursday.
“The U.S. commitment to Israel’s security is sacrosanct,” a State Department spokesperson said in a statement sent to Newsweek late last month. “We stand by the two-state solution because it is the best way to ensure Israel’s future as a Jewish and democratic state, while upholding the Palestinians’ legitimate aspirations to self-determination in a viable, sovereign state of their own.”
Israel, for its part, says it’s ready to talk anytime.
“Our message is that we are ready for negotiation, as always,” an Israeli official told Newsweek. “We are waiting for the Palestinians to come to negotiate. It was our stand before, it is our stand now. It’s them that are not coming to the table.”
The Palestinian side has also offered indications it might be willing to once again engage Israel directly, with conditions, one of which is the right foreign support.
Citing remarks by Abbas last August, Aranki said Palestinian leadership “was ready to return to the negotiating table with the Israelis, on the basis of a two-state solution, if international sponsorship was provided.”