Biden Administration risks repeating past Mideast mistakes, Israeli author tells AIJAC webinar

February 16, 2021 by J-Wire Newsdesk
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The Biden Administration may be on the cusp of repeating the mistakes of previous US administrations by enabling and rewarding Palestinian rejection of Israel, even as an increasing number of Israel’s neighbours are embracing the Jewish state of Israel as an indigenous part of the region.

Einat Wilf

So says Israeli author and former Labor Member of Knesset Einat Wilf, speaking to a webinar for the Australia/Israel & Jewish Affairs Council (AIJAC) recently.

Wilf told the forum that statements by the Biden Administration about restoring funding to the UN’s Palestinian refugee agency UNRWA indicate that it appears to be falling into the same trap which was the subject of her top-selling book published in English last year, The War of Return: How Western indulgence of the Palestinian dream has obstructed the path to peace.

If the US goes ahead with restoring funding to UNRWA unconditionally “it would be making a conscious, active statement, which is terrible,” Wilf said.

Restoring such funding could be done in a constructive way, she added. They could say “we’re refunding UNRWA, but we are also doing it with a clear declaration that UNRWA’s recipients of services are not refugees… that citizens of Jordan and people who live in the West Bank and Gaza cannot be considered refugees by any international standards… They could be saying we are refunding UNRWA [as an interim process] with a five-year plan for dismantling the organization. They could do these things, but I see zero indication that this is how they want to do it.”

Instead, Wilf said, they appear to be putting appearances ahead of sound policy. “They are actually interested in… virtue signalling that they are the anti-Trump and that they are overhauling the [Trump Administration’s] policies regardless of whether they were good ones or bad ones.”

Wilf said that for all the mistakes being made by the US on the Palestinian issue, American disengagement from the Middle East has been the policy of every President since the Iraq war, including now Joe Biden. Yet it is this American withdrawal that has brought about the conditions that have built momentum towards acceptance, peace and normalisation between Israel and much of the Arab world.

“America’s disengagement from the Middle East is turning Israel away from [the] fortress [mentality that it has been forced to operate under since its creation] into how can we integrate and ultimately secure our presence in the Middle East by hopefully having a less hostile Arab and Islamic presence,” Wilf said. This is possible, she said, since more countries “are showing, finally, an Arab and Islamic willingness to accept Israel and sovereign Jews as indigenous in this region. And this is amazing.”

Wilf, who as a former Labor MK does not support Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s side of politics, nevertheless gives him credit for seeing the opportunity of building ties with the Arab and Muslim world – foreign and domestically – and embracing change, sometimes at significant political risk.

“[Netanyahu] understood the changing geopolitics, the fact that America is getting out of the region and that Israel ultimately has to build its future in alliance with Arab and Muslim countries. And you’re even seeing it in [the current Israeli] elections and [Netanyahu’s] reaching out to Israel’s Arab and Muslim citizens,” Wilf said.

“So both in terms of Israel, foreign policy and external relations and … domestic issues, we’re seeing a complete or a substantial realignment of Israel into the region and an understanding that our future ultimately lies in being accepted and embraced by the broader Arab and Muslim world,” she added.

Wilf also foresees an Israeli trend towards diversifying its foreign policy as a result of the US disengagement in the region. “I think now what we’re going to see is an Israel that works with America and with Europe, and India, and China and of course, a lot more openly with the Gulf countries and with Egypt and generally with the Arab and Islamic world. And it’s just going to be a much more diverse, putting eggs in many baskets, foreign policy.”

During a lively question and answer session, Wilf reflected on the way many Palestinian activists contradict themselves on the matter of Palestinian governance, “between the people who say that it’s Israel’s responsibility to do things for Palestinians and those who claim that Palestine is a state. They are able to hold these two contradictory thoughts in their mind: On the one hand, they push Palestine as a state when it’s useful against Israel [such as in making a case for prosecution of Israel by the International Criminal Court] and they ignore or they push back on the notion that Palestine is a state when it’s inconvenient [such as when arguing that Israel is held responsible for vaccinating Palestinians].”

Discussing next month’s Israel’s elections, Wilf, without venturing a prediction on the outcome, mused that Netanyahu’s political manoeuvrings, and those of his opponents, could actually be having a beneficial effect on Israeli society in the long run.

“Netanyahu in many respects is a very capable and therefore very cynical politician, but sometimes his cynicism might have the effect, intended or unintended, of a long term positive legacy,” Wilf said. “The whole breakdown of Israeli politics left and right and Jews and Arabs, all of that is really changing. And despite all the cynicism that’s underneath it, I think it might have a very interesting, lasting legacy” she concluded.

AIJAC’s next webinar, featuring Danielle Pletka, American Enterprise Institute (AEI) senior fellow in foreign and defence policy studies, will be held on February 17.


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