Sir Vincent Fean and the Question: Could a New U.S. President Mean a New Palestine-Israel?
by Abigail Rose McCall
On Nov. 3, 2020, the same day that votes were cast for a new U.S. president, Israeli forces razed a Palestinian village to the ground. Whether this was a strategic move made to go unnoticed or a mere coincidence, it’s an incident that nevertheless reflects the uniquely harsh scene that awaits President-elect Joe Biden come January 2021. In the context of Palestinian rights, the general sentiment is relief. Relief that the next four years will not be like the last and that, therefore, there may be a chance for the Palestinians to step back from the abyss. This hope, however, requires us to go beyond relief and ask some deeper questions about the specific opportunities available. In the most recent session of a series of talks conducted by the London-based Balfour Project (www.balfourproject.org), Sir Vincent Fean, former British consul general in Jerusalem, described the threshold, hopes, and dangers that the president-elect now faces in the context of Israel-Palestine.
Specifically, in taking up the question “How may the U.S. presidential elections affect the Israel-Palestine conflict?” Fean gave an ordered account from the Trump administration through to Biden’s prospective term and fit it with reflections on what this means for the Palestinian cause. The point of having this kind of talk is that at this time of change, we need to find where such change can and should occur for Palestine-Israel. And so, with the help of Fean’s recent discussion, let us ourselves have a talk of this specific kind.
What It Means To Inherit the Remnants of a Trump Administration
With Donald Trump, Israel was given four years’ worth of an explicitly permissive climate whereby its illegal settlement project was able to exponentially increase. For Fean, like many others, it is this project and its “incremental de facto annexation” that is the most significant obstacle to securing a future for all those on the land. It follows, then, that U.S. policy under Trump has meant: “We’re in a worse position, particularly if you’re a Palestinian, than four years ago.”
Further, the moves that were made were all deliberately aimed at permanently eroding any Palestinian option for statehood. Specifically, Fean cited the movement of the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, the official recognition of the illegally occupied Golan Heights as part of Israel, and the cutting of funding to UNRWA, the UN agency dedicated to helping Palestinian refugees. Fean rightfully didn’t shy away from describing the Trump administration as a clear accomplice to theft — theft of land and of rights in an increased and harsher way than previous administrations.
Following such comments, questions were raised in relation to the concerns about the interim period and the idea that Trump might complete this thievery by supporting the formal annexation of large swathes of the West Bank. Indeed, since the airing of this talk on Nov. 12, 2020, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has made an official visit to an illegal Israeli settlement in the West Bank, where he declared Area C to be Israeli land for trade purposes in the eyes of the Trump administration — the first U.S. secretary of state to do so. Noting the stark injustice that de facto annexation already creates on the ground, however, Fean suggests that rather than thinking about how Trump might create further damage in the interim period, we need to look forward to how Biden will confront it as incoming president.
The Coming of Biden: A Pending Position
This is why talks like this with people like Fean are being had: We’re trying to find out where we’re at with an issue as big as Israel-Palestine and at a moment as significant as the changing of U.S. presidents. The feeling Fean underscored is urgency. Indeed, there is a severe urgency that exists in relation to Palestinian rights and the question of statehood, but whether that urgency will be confronted and confronted properly is unclear. What is clear is that the U.S. will maintain its strong relationship with Israel. Nevertheless, it is also clear that President-elect Biden will try to reverse the “excesses” of Trump in the region. As Fean noted, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris has already said that the incoming administration will “oppose any unilateral actions that undermine a two-state solution.” And so, what we are expecting to get with Biden is an attempt to reverse Trump while still committing to the strong alliance with Israel. This is a kind of default position, and while it may be better than Trump’s, it’s arguably “not enough.” Here, we need to find out what to look out for with the pursuit of this position as well as decide if there are certain opportunities to be found in it.
A Cautionary Tale for the President-Elect
First, Fean cautioned against the dangers of Biden’s position, referencing the warnings made by John Kerry in his last speech as secretary of state, which suggested that without deliberate “change,” the future in this region will be ”separate and unequal.” That was four years ago, but it carries a prophetic note when spoken today. The key here is the word “change,” as it signals the need for a kind of shift. Biden’s approach, although perhaps a reversal of Trump, is at risk of continuing the historically ineffective position that has been taken by previous U.S. Administrations. Biden, like previous Democratic leaders, as a realist and someone who is aware of the strategic breakdown it would cause, has flagged the fact that he would never leverage military aid to Israel. Down this line, Israel’s settlement project will still be able to operate in a permissive arena. As Fean declares, “I suspect that the easy ones will get done, but opposition to annexation, opposition to settlements — harder.”
And here, whether you symbolically fight for Palestinian rights or not, you have the reality of a “perpetual occupation” which is by any account “injustice” and, as we have continually experienced, a damaging setting for a land contested by two peoples. Thus, we are at risk of simply reverting to the stalemate that Israel-Palestine was in when Trump came on the scene. This is the danger of Biden’s position: Without creating ”change,” the land and its people will fall (further) victim to Kerry’s prophecy.
Finding Hope in the Changing of U.S. Presidents
In saying this and reflecting on the climate of change that, in itself, has surrounded Biden’s ascension to the presidency, perhaps there are opportunities here. Fean, in line with the ethos of the Balfour Project, certainly thinks that there is the possibility for the U.S. to support Israel at the same time as it purposefully pushes for Palestinian rights and statehood. The question is how to make this possibility work. Fean outlines that the sense of urgency in the context of Palestine is resonant with (although not equated to) many of the rights-based movements sweeping the U.S. and other countries at the moment, including the Black Lives Matter movement. This setting, which Biden worked with in his bid for the presidency, is the same one which offers us the chance to (carefully) bring the question of Palestine into an easily recognizable arena. Indeed, although this has been historically attempted, albeit loosely, the looming change in the presidency at a time when these movements are gaining real exposure and achieving real objectives does offer a unique space for Palestine to be considered more purposefully. This, for Fean, shows why the office of the U.S. presidency, in itself, is not the sole player in the game of Israel-Palestine. What it does have is power, and therefore we need to work out how to influence how that power is used. In addition, it will be received by a Democratic Party that is itself changing posture toward a more progressive stance. Here, we have seen Muslim American Congresswomen Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar reelected and overall, a genuine call within the party to start holding Israel accountable for its settlement project and its dismissal of Palestinian rights. This, in combination with a civil society making real calls for change, means Biden does have the ability to tap into a bigger, more pragmatic shift in terms of Palestine-Israel.
Refreshing the Palestinian Cause: A Call to Action
“We have to start at home” is a sentiment that Fean signposted throughout the entirety of this talk. The reason for talking about what this U.S. presidential election means for the Israel-Palestine conflict is that we need to start thinking about how to help end an intractable situation that has dragged on as long as this one has. This is why Fean ended his talk with a call to action that extends beyond both the region itself and the role of the U.S., pleading, “[B]e deeply grateful, but don’t relax,”
Fean suggested that in nations like the UK and most others in Europe and Australia and Canada, where symbolically upholding commitments to a two-state solution is the norm, we, “you and me,” need to more forcefully push for policy that is “action-oriented and … consequence-oriented on illegality.” This process will require pressure on both local and national politicians and policy that is conducted via either formal processes or informal movements. Regardless, the onus needs to be on ensuring that the Palestinian plight is seen and heard. Here, at this time of change, we should be reaching out to those in the region and abroad who want change, those who don’t think Netanyahu and his settlement project represents the position they want for their future. It’s certainly easier said than done, especially as an outsider. By highlighting the cause of the Palestinians, however, perhaps our efforts at home, in this ever-changing world, will coalesce and amount to something.
Going Beyond: The Future of Palestine
And so, with regard to Biden, Fean conveyed a hopeful, albeit sober, account of the opportunities that will be available for the region. Crucially, it is the call to “make some noise” in terms of pursuing equal rights and statehood for the Palestinians that Fean deemed necessary for those opportunities to be picked up on. Biden, he stipulated, does represent hope for the region if he himself responds to the hopeful atmosphere and signs of change that won him the presidency. At times of change, it’s important and powerful to be informed. Now, more than ever, this is true not only in domestic contexts but international settings as well: what we want it to look like, where we should be putting our effort and how. Fean is an advocate for addressing the Israel-Palestine issue, and this is done in good faith. The question of Palestine remains harshly unresolved, and the U.S. has a big hand in it. So this change in leadership will, by default, flow through to this context. We have to watch and direct this process. This is the message we get from Fean’s talk — and it should be heeded.
You can listen to more talks and podcasts by the Balfour Project on Spotify:https://open.spotify.com/show/39wuN5ytvIrsbyrfReUGA2?si=3yaJvV-lTg6Fup-uLIc1jg
Abigail Rose McCall
Abigail Rose McCall, a former PIJ intern from Australia, has a BA in Politics, Philosophy and Economics and is currently beginning a master’s program in journalism. In 2017, she attended the Global Young Diplomats Forum in Latvia, where the issue of Israel-Palestine was debated at large and inspired her significant interest in the region.