Why Doesn’t Biden’s Democracy Agenda Include Palestinians?

US government officials sometimes say extraordinary things. But they often say them so blandly that it’s hard to recognize how extraordinary they are. Consider this statement last week, from an unnamed senior member of the Biden administration, to Israeli reporter Barak Ravid:

“We have taken a consistent position that the exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Palestinian government and people to determine, not the U.S. government.”

Wow. Crazy stuff.

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First, there is no “Palestinian government.” The Palestinian Authority has no army; it controls not an inch of sovereign territory. It is Israel’s subcontractor in the West Bank, doing the work (running schools, picking up garbage, arresting criminals) that Israel would rather not do itself. When PA officials forget their subordinate status, and significantly challenge Israeli control, Israel reminds them—as happened last month when the PA’s foreign minister visited the International Criminal Court and Israel retaliated by revoking his permit to travel abroad.

Secondly, why should it be up to the Palestinian “government” to “determine” whether Palestinians enjoy “democratic elections”? Championing global democracy is supposed to be one of Joe Biden’s core missions. The premise of that mission, we’ve been led to believe, is that the US considers democratic elections a universal right—not an option that foreign leaders can pursue, or not pursue, depending on whether it suits their interests. Imagine if a Biden administration official said “the exercise of democratic elections is a matter for the Russian government…to determine.”

Perhaps recognizing the awkwardness of declaring that the US doesn’t care whether foreign leaders hold free elections, the unnamed Biden official tried to soften the blow by saying that it is also up to the “Palestinian people to determine” whether to hold democratic elections. But that’s nonsensical. How is anyone supposed to know whether the Palestinian people want democratic elections unless they…hold democratic elections?

The Biden administration is uncomfortable with Palestinian democracy for the same reason many Republicans are uncomfortable with American democracy. Because the wrong people sometimes win. In an interview with Said Arikat of the Palestinian newspaper Al-Quds, another anonymous Biden official (or maybe the same one) warned that “all signs indicate that the multiple divisions within Fatah…will reduce its ability to mobilize the Palestinians in a way that enables them to defeat Hamas.” Why is that so bad? Because a Hamas victory “will complicate, or even completely dispel, prospects for the two-state solution.” For these reasons, the official said, the Biden administration “will look with understanding at the possibility of postponing the elections for some time.” Presumably until the Biden team feels confident that America’s favored candidates will win.

The close reader may notice something curious about the Biden administration’s logic. It doesn’t think Palestinian elections are a good idea because a party that opposes the two-state solution, Hamas, might win. But a party that opposes the two-state solution, Likud, has been running Israel for more than a decade now. And Benjamin Netanyahu’s opposition to two states is far more consequential than Hamas’ because Netanyahu has far more power to do something about it. Sure, Hamas can fulminate against partitioning the land between the river and the sea, but its diatribes, or even its rocket fire, doesn’t create facts on the ground that make partition impossible. Netanyahu’s enthusiastic support for settlement growth does.

Yet even when Netanyahu pledged to annex the West Bank—which would officially close the door on two states—the United States never suggested that Israel not hold elections because he might win. The Biden administration has not even questioned Israelis’ right to vote for parties so reprehensible that AIPAC—AIPAC!—labels them “racist.” 

How come? Because the Biden administration thinks Israelis deserve democracy—which means the right to choose their leaders even when those leaders disagree with the United States. Palestinians, by contrast, have the right to choose only those leaders of whom America approves.

To be fair, if the Palestinian Authority cancels the legislative elections it is supposed to hold next month, the Biden administration won’t be the sole culprit. Netanyahu’s government has been threatening to arrest Hamas candidates if they run and may not allow Palestinians in East Jerusalem to vote, which could provide Mahmoud Abbas a pretext to cancel elections that he doesn’t seem enthusiastic about holding anyway, given that he may lose.

But while Netanyahu and Abbas will bear as much responsibility as the Biden administration if Palestinian elections are cancelled, Netanyahu and Abbas aren’t planning to host a global “Democracy Summit” later this year. They may both oppose Palestinian democracy, but neither fashions themselves as a leader of the fight for democracy worldwide.

In March, the Biden administration unveiled its annual Human Rights Report, which declared that:

“There have been no national elections in the West Bank and Gaza since 2006. President Mahmoud Abbas has remained in office despite the expiration of his four-year term in 2009. The Palestinian Legislative Council has not functioned since 2007, and in 2018 the Palestinian Authority dissolved the Constitutional Court.”

Next year, the Biden team should add an addendum: “And we like it that way.”

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Other Stuff:

This week’s Zoom call, for paid subscribers, will be at 11 AM ET, not Noon, on Friday, so we can host Omar Shakir, the Israel and Palestine Director at Human Rights Watch. Omar will have some big news to share about Human Rights Watch’s work. In addition, Omar was expelled in 2019 from Israel for allegedly supporting a boycott of the country—an action denounced by human rights groups across the globe. With luck, he’ll also talk about that.

We’re also going to be using a new Zoom link. Paid subscribers (become one!) should receive it on Wednesday.

Last week I interviewed Daniel Levy and Zaha Hassan about the new Carnegie Endowment for International Peace report, Breaking the Israel-Palestine Status Quo.

On April 29 I’ll be participating in a Hunter College panel on the Biden administration’s first 100 days.

After publishing one thoughtful essay defending the Jerusalem Declaration on anti-Semitism, Jewish Currents last week published another critiquing it.

If you’ve never read anything about US policy toward the Marshall Islands, here’s your chance. It’s a peculiar, fascinating, appalling subject, which deserves far more attention than it gets.

See you on Friday,

Peter