Y.L. Al-Sheikh is a Palestinian-American writer and organizer active in the Democratic Socialists of America and in international solidarity work between Israel/Palestine and the United States.
The prospective invasion of Rafah by Israel threatens to blow up not just the nation’s recent attempts at regional normalization, but to also provoke the ire of Egypt and Jordan, countries that walked long, hard diplomatic roads to reach peace with their neighbor. Rafah, the southernmost city in the Gaza strip, had a prewar population of 275,000, which has now swollen to over 1,300,000 people. It is currently the last place for most of the Palestinians of Gaza to find refuge, given the scale of destruction throughout the north forcing them south toward the Egyptian border.
It is in this context that we are witnessing some of the harshest exchanges between Israel and its Arab neighbors, including the Jordanians and Egyptians, since the 1973 war fifty years ago. This regional deterioration comes at a time that the Biden Administration is rebooting its multi-year effort to broker a security and normalization deal between Saudi Arabia and Israel, despite fierce skepticism both at home from Senate Democrats and abroad from Israel’s ultra-right governing coalition.
With a resurgent intensity in rage among the Egyptian and Jordanian peoples in response to Israel’s military campaigns in occupied Palestine, the governments of these two states are feeling the pressure to respond. In Egypt’s case, with echoes of the Nakba on the mind and fears of hundreds of thousands refugees being exiled into the Sinai, they have publicly raised the prospect of terminating the 1979 treaty of peace based on the Camp David accords. On the other side of Israel’s frontier, the government of the Kingdom of Jordan, which has a majority Palestinian population, was recently instructed by its parliament to review all existing agreements with Israel, including the 1994 treaty of peace which was signed in part with the expectation that a Palestinian state would soon come to fruition via Oslo. These actions, though perhaps largely symbolic at the moment, underscore a more serious lesson that has been forced upon the West since the beginning of the war: the prospects for durable peace and prosperity in the region are slim to none without a meaningful path to Palestinian liberation.
Cracks in this orientalist belief that the Palestinians could be sidelined permanently and without consequence were already showing long before October 7th, with the Biden administration facing rising domestic pressure over the three and a half years of his first term. Prominent Democrats across the political spectrum of the party, from internationalist progressives like Bernie Sanders and Rashida Tlaib to national security centrists like Chris Van Hollen and Tim Kaine, have vented frustration with the lack of pushback against Israel’s most extreme government in history.
Before the war, President Biden’s record on Israel-Palestine looked eerily similar to his predecessor’s, with the president nominally maintaining key elements of Pompeo doctrine on settlement policy, upholding Trump’s recognition of Israeli sovereignty over the Golan heights and implicit recognition of Israel’s control over a supposedly “united” Jerusalem, and a failure to follow through on the campaign promise to reopen the consulate for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. It took until February 23, 2024, over three years into this administration’s term, for the first of a series of possible reversals by the Biden administration of any part of the Pompeo doctrine. It remains unclear at this time if this policy change will include a reversal in how products made in the settlements must be labeled, as the administration currently mandates that Israeli products made in the occupied West Bank be marked as “made in Israel”. To the administration’s credit, an executive order was issued which allows for sanctions to be imposed on violent settlers and those who do business with them, and there is speculation that the mechanism will be used more often in the near future.
Polling data indicated that younger voters disapproved of Biden’s handling of the May-June War of 2021, just as they are disapproving today of his handling of the current war, and in early 2023 a Gallup poll had shown that for the first time ever Democratic voters had more sympathy for Palestinians than they did for Israelis. In this context, it is not surprising that Senate Democrats are demanding real concessions for Palestinians in exchange for approving any tentative treaty between Saudi Arabia and the United States. The “price” for such a treaty since the brutal Israeli campaign that has killed over 12,000 Palestinian children has gone up significantly, both from the perspective of Democrats and of Saudi Crown Prince MBS, with the latter now demanding that Israel take “irreversible steps” towards the establishment of a Palestinian state.
Yet there have also been rumblings against the suddenly revived two-state paradigm itself. We are now more than twenty five years removed from the signing of the first Oslo agreement, which neither explicitly promised a Palestinian state nor set a defined time table for the establishment of such a state, and the failures of the much talked-about peace process are leading some to embrace alternative frameworks for peace. Rashida Tlaib is currently the only member of Congress to formally endorse a secular, binational state for all of its citizens, but her skepticism of two states for two peoples is being echoed in the international arena.
In a bombshell interview last year, former Jordanian DPM and FM Marwan Muasher stated that it was his view that Jordan should sever all relations with Israel and begin to push the international community towards a single state or confederal model that respects Palestinian and Jewish Israeli rights alike. Muasher was the architect of the 1994 treaty of peace between Jordan and Israel, and his view is indicative of how some in Jordan are beginning to feel about the post-Oslo political landscape. Likewise, the “one-state reality” as a framework for understanding the conflict has gained salience on the heels of reports issued by B’Tselem, Amnesty, and Human Rights Watch calling Israel’s multifaceted regime over all Palestinians between the Mediterranean and River a system of apartheid. In May of 2021, Congresswomen Bush, Ocasio-Cortez, and Tlaib all asserted that “apartheid states are not democracies”. Despite these shifts, the Biden administration seems intent on trying to revive partition as the United States’ official framework for peace, and a detailed plan could be unveiled within the next month.
However, the current philosophy of unequivocal support to Israel makes the United States one of the biggest obstacles to a negotiated peace, rather than a facilitator of it. So long as this administration and any successive one is intent on being Israel’s lawyer above all else, intervening on Israel’s behalf in every diplomatic forum and providing it with unconditional military support, there will be no reason for Israel to compromise and certainly no reason for Palestinians to trust the Americans to be a fair mediator. For peace to be given a chance of seriously succeeding, regardless of the minute details of the final political framework, Biden will not just have to finally reverse the damage that his predecessor created, but go beyond all of his predecessors and make clear that a just settlement will be based on international law and the dignity of not just Israelis, but the Palestinians as well. As Rashid Khalidi says towards the end of his book A Hundred Years’ War On Palestine, negotiations “should stress complete equality of treatment of both peoples, and be based on the Hague and Fourth Geneva conventions, the United Nations Charter with its stress on national self determination, and all relevant UN Security Council and General Assembly resolutions, not just those cherry-picked by the United States to favor Israel.”
Anything less will doom this president to the same fate as Clinton, Bush, and Obama, failed authors of ephemeral treaties, of which nothing besides missed opportunity remains.