As the 3-week-old Israel-Hamas war enters what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu says could be a “long and difficult” new stage, President Joe Biden is calling on Israeli and Arab leaders to think hard about their eventual postwar reality.
It’s one, he argues, where finally finding agreement on a long-sought two-state solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict should be a priority.
“There’s no going back to the status quo as it stood on Oct. 6,” Biden told reporters, referring to the day before Hamas militants attacked Israel and set off the latest war. The White House says Biden conveyed the same message directly to Netanyahu during a telephone call this past week.
“It also means that when this crisis is over, there has to be a vision of what comes next, and in our view it has to be a two-state solution,” Biden said.
The push for a two-state solution — one in which Israel would co-exist with an independent Palestinian state — has eluded U.S. presidents and Middle East diplomats for decades. It’s been put on the back burner since the last American-led effort at peace talks collapsed in 2014 amid disagreements on Israeli settlements, the release of Palestinian prisoners and other issues.
Palestinian statehood is something that Biden rarely addressed in the early going of his administration. During his visit to the West Bank last year, Biden said the “ground is not ripe” for new attempts to reach a permanent peace even as he reiterated to Palestinians the long-held U.S. support for statehood.
Now, at a moment of heightened concern that the Israel-Hamas war could spiral into a broader regional conflict, Biden has begun to emphasize that once the bombing and shooting stop, working toward a Palestinian state should no longer be ignored.
Until recently, Biden had put far more emphasis on what his administration saw as the achievable ambition of normalizing relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors than on restarting peace talks.
Even his national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, in a lengthy essay that was written shortly before the Oct. 7 attack and described Biden’s global foreign policy efforts made no mention of Palestinian statehood. In an updated version of the Foreign Affairs essay posted online, Sullivan wrote that the administration was “committed to a two-state solution.” White House official also say the normalization talks have always included significant proposals to benefit the Palestinians.
There is no shortage of obstacles in the way of Biden’s postwar vision. An independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza is viewed as a nonstarter by Israel’s far-right government. An ineffectual Palestinian Authority controls parts of the West Bank and has little credibility with the population it governs. Meantime, a looming U.S. presidential election could make Biden a less-than-ideal mediator in 2024.
Aaron David Miller, who served as an adviser on Middle East issues to Democratic and Republican administrations, said Biden’s recent emphasis on a two-state solution was an “aspirational talking point.”
“The odds are very, very low,” he said. “It’s essentially mission impossible.”
The call for a two-state solution arose Saturday at the Republican Jewish Coalition summit in Las Vegas, where GOP presidential contenders criticized Biden’s Israel policy and what they saw as a failure by Democrats to sufficiently condemn antisemitism across the United States. One presidential hopeful, biotech entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, said Israel should feel free to abandon “the myth of a two-state solution.”
The White House is cognizant that Biden’s calls for a two-state solution are ambitious and are perhaps not achievable in the near term, according to a White House official who was not authorized to publicly discuss internal deliberations and spoke on condition of anonymity. There is also a recognition that the Netanyahu government, facing public backlash for failing to prevent the Hamas attack, is focused on its operations against Hamas and is not giving much consideration to Biden’s talk of Palestinian statehood.
Still, Biden believes it is important for him and his team to convey “hope” and make clear that his administration backs a Palestinian state, the official said.
Dennis Ross, a negotiator in the peace process in both the George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton administrations, said it is important to start planning for down the road even though there is no end in sight for the current conflict.
“You can’t go back to the point where you can ignore the Palestinians as an issue,” Ross said. “It’s not hopeless. When you get beyond this, it’s not hopeless.”
The renewed calls for Palestinian statehood also come as Palestinian American groups, Muslim advocacy organizations and some fellow Democrats have expressed frustration that Biden continues to express full-throated support for Israel at a time when the Palestinian death count is mounting and the humanitarian crisis in Gaza worsening.
“This is not about someone’s faith,” said White House National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said. “It’s about finding a future for the Middle East that is more cooperative, more stable, more secure, where Israel’s more integrated into the region and we’re not giving up on it.”
Biden has expressed concern about deteriorating conditions for innocent civilians in Gaza. But his insistence that he will not dictate how Israeli forces carry out their operations could complicate his ability to maintain credibility as an evenhanded broker. U.S. Muslim leaders, at a private White House meeting with Biden and top aides this past week, urged the president to call for a cease-fire.
Participants also told Biden that his silence on what they perceive as collective punishment by Israel against innocent Gaza civilians was undercutting his standing with Arab Americans and Muslims, including in states that could have a big impact on the 2024 election.
They also expressed their concern to Biden over his statement that he has “no confidence” in the Gaza death count because it is tabulated the Hamas-run Health Ministry. The ministry says more than 8,000 people, mostly women and minors, have been killed in Gaza. More than 1,400 people have died on the Israeli side, mainly civilians killed during the initial Hamas onslaught.
Rami Nashashibi, the founder of the Inner City Muslim Action Network in Chicago and a participant in the meeting, said he told Biden that his comments about the death toll in Gaza came off as “dehumanizing.” Nashashibi added that he and the other participants told the president that his comments were particularly unsettling because Biden, throughout his term, has demonstrated profound empathy with suffering people.
“I raised that with him very directly, and others in the room also did so in a way that I think was heard and acknowledged,” Nashashibi said.
The renewed push for statehood could be pointed to by Biden as a sign of his commitment to Palestinian sovereignty. But his handling of the Mideast turmoil is already threatening to be a drag on his reelection prospects in 2024, and any progress that Biden can make toward a two-state solution is likely to require a second term.
Some Democratic Party officials have become concerned his handling of the war could dent Biden’s and the party’s standing with Arab American voters as well as a younger voters who polls show have greater sympathy for Palestinian concerns than the party’s older and more centrist voters.
A senior Michigan Democratic Party official said Biden’s handling of the war has already emerged in the state as a “huge” problem and could become more vexing if the war stretches on and the death toll in Gaza continues to rise. The official spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive party concerns.
Biden was expected to face a tight 2024 race in the state even before the war. He won Michigan by less than 3 percentage points in 2020, and Republican Donald Trump beat Democrat Hillary Clinton in the state by 0.3% in 2016. More than 300,000 people of Middle Eastern or North African ancestry live in Michigan.
“Even if he’s hurt to the tune of a few points, he’s already got a very close race,” said longtime Michigan pollster Bernie Porn .
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