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U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken meets with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, in the West Bank city of Ramallah, May 25, 2021. Majdi Mohammed/Pool via REUTERS
Order from Chaos

For Washington and the Palestinians, old policy is no substitute for sound policy

Content from the Brookings Doha Center is now archived. In September 2021, after 14 years of impactful partnership, Brookings and the Brookings Doha Center announced that they were ending their affiliation. The Brookings Doha Center is now the Middle East Council on Global Affairs, a separate public policy institution based in Qatar.

The arrival of U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken in Jerusalem last week marked the Biden administration’s first high-level public engagement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Coming days after a cease-fire was called between Israel and Hamas, which ended 11 days of fighting that left nearly 250 dead in Gaza, including 66 children, and 10 adults and two children dead in Israel, Blinken’s visit foreclosed an unsuccessful attempt by the administration to de-prioritize the issue. It was also subtle recognition that simply ignoring the conflict will not make it go away.

But what exactly is the objective of Blinken’s new diplomacy? Prior to his departure to the region, America’s top diplomat tweeted that he had spoken with Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas “to ensure the ceasefire holds,” and “conveyed U.S. commitment to work with the Palestinian Authority and the UN to provide rapid humanitarian assistance.” President Joe Biden added in his own statement that Blinken would “continue our administration’s efforts to rebuild ties to, and support for, the Palestinian people and leaders, after years of neglect.”

In the week prior, however, the administration had provided blanket support for Israel’s bombardment of Gaza under the rationale of Israel’s “right to defend itself” — notably offering no such vindication for Palestinian use of force. It had also scuttled four attempts in the U.N. Security Council to issue a statement calling for a cease-fire. While the administration largely claimed credit for the cessation of violence that eventually materialized through its “behind-the-scenes diplomacy,” it was clear the leg work was put in by Egypt and, to a lesser extent, Qatar and Jordan.

Inconsistent with Blinken’s cease-fire mission, however, is the fact that Abbas and the PA were not a party to it, or that the PA is barely present in Gaza and has no sway over Hamas. Blinken’s itinerary did not include a visit to Gaza, the epicenter of the carnage and presumable destination for American humanitarian relief, or to the Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where efforts to replace Palestinian families with Jewish settlers helped ignite weeks of protests that led up to the 11-day battle between Hamas and Israel. Instead, Blinken met with Abbas in Ramallah, presumably because he is not Hamas — which is, perhaps, the PA president’s sole remaining source of legitimacy.

Our man in the West Bank

Throughout the crisis that has unfolded over the past five weeks in Jerusalem, Gaza, and beyond, Abbas has been a marginal figure with virtually no leverage over the events taking place around him, which has damaged his standing among his public. As such, the nature of Blinken’s involvement appears more like an intervention to rescue its preferred Palestinian interlocutor, while perhaps curbing the potential gains Hamas is likely to accrue through its direct involvement in the fighting with Israel.

During his meeting with Abbas, Blinken announced the U.S. would reopen its consulate in Jerusalem, which functions as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians. The move and the manner in which it was announced was clearly aimed at giving Abbas something tangible on Jerusalem that he could show his people. It was also accompanied by fresh pledges of U.S. aid to the Palestinians.

How impactful this will be in resuscitating Abbas’s image is an open question. The PA president’s troubles go well beyond optics. Polling regularly shows that more than 65% of Palestinians want Abbas to resign, and the majority feel the PA has become a burden on them. These numbers do not yet reflect the blow Abbas has taken from the recent eruption of conflict, or his decision on April 29 to cancel parliamentary elections in which his Fatah party was facing a serious challenge to its continued rule (the decision elicited broad condemnation among Palestinians before developments in Jerusalem refocused attention). Given that elections were last held for the PA in 2006, Abbas has no democratic mandate; and without a compelling vision or strategy for the future that Palestinians are rallying around, the president and the PA are facing a deepening crisis of legitimacy.

Hamas’s reputation has also been battered by years of ineffective rule in the Gaza Strip without a popular mandate (March polling showed it heading to elections with support around 20-30 percent). The recent fighting, however, has allowed Hamas to once again make the case for its brand of armed resistance — that its rockets were capable of disrupting Israeli life, capturing international attention and urgency, and demonstrating to the world that there is no military solution in Gaza. Hamas showed that it had improved its capabilities despite three other major Israeli bombardment campaigns and a 14-year blockade of the territory. Moreover, Hamas demonstrated its relevancy beyond Gaza by “defending” Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque after weeks of aggressive Israeli actions against Palestinians in the holy city during the month of Ramadan (a period in which Abbas seemed impotent by comparison). It is also true that Hamas’s intervention is polarizing among Palestinians, many of whom view the rocket fire at Israel as not only bringing further death and destruction to Gaza, but overshadowing and factionalizing the grassroots, broad-based uprising that has continued throughout the rest of the country, even after the cease-fire.

Ironically, Hamas rocket fire also forced the Biden administration’s begrudging attention and made Abbas’s fate an issue of concern. Not unlike other authoritarians in the Middle East, Abbas’s legitimacy to the West seems to now rest on being the alternative to actors the U.S. finds unpalatable.

A hazardous approach to Palestinian politics

The involvement of the Biden administration in the latest crisis is emblematic of the divisive and problematic nature of U.S. involvement in Palestinian politics writ large. With Washington limiting its engagement to the Fatah-led PA, Palestinians face immense risk in unifying their polity and holding democratic elections, which would likely incorporate political factions into the PA and Palestine Liberation Organization that the U.S. is unwilling to work with. To avoid that risk, the PA is encouraged to remain unrepresentative and authoritarian, using a security apparatus funded and trained by its Western partners to crush opposition and dissent.

As time has passed, this sclerotic PA has become increasingly disconnected from the population under its control, especially the 60% now under the age of 25 — roughly 70% of whom are unaffiliated with any political faction. Deferring elections does not only keep Hamas out of the government, but the rest of society too. Prior to the May 22 election being canceled, 36 party lists had qualified to run, representing a far wider breadth of the population than just Fatah and Hamas.

While the Biden administration cannot be blamed for the canceled elections, it did signal to the PA leadership that it would “understand” if they were postponed, as it was eager to avoid the headache that would accompany Hamas’s return to the PA. As Abbas’s own political fortunes looked bleak, U.S. equivocation was all the PA president needed to jettison a return to the ballot box.

There is no question that formulating a constructive U.S. policy regarding the Palestinians is not straightforward, as it is heavily constrained by domestic legislation and political concerns. An ambitious agenda would require significant political capital, which the Biden administration is loath to invest given other priorities and political battles on the horizon.

Nonetheless, the Biden administration could have chosen to rethink the U.S. approach to this conflict and bring it up to speed with current realities on the ground, even if wanting to avoid a major diplomatic peace initiative. Instead, it opted to recycle the anachronistic policies of earlier administrations like Bill Clinton’s, George W. Bush’s and, to a lesser extent, Barack Obama’s — in which Abbas and the PA happen to feature front and center. Because the U.S. is unwilling to countenance any policy options other than the two-state solution, the overly-dependent PA leadership also stays the course. But the deepening one-state reality on the ground has forced the majority of Palestinians to abandon the two-state solution as a viable option, and caused the disconnect between the public and the PA to grow wider. Without legitimacy, public support or a Palestinian state forthcoming, what role is the PA serving besides as an enforcer of the status quo?

As Blinken wrapped up his Mideast tour, he spoke about securing the calm in Gaza without addressing the underlying issues that produced the violence and will continue to do so if not tackled seriously, including Israel’s endless military occupation and denial of the Palestinians’ basic human and political rights, as well as the ongoing siege of Gaza. While there is a humanitarian dimension to all of this, which the Biden administration appears more inclined to focus on, the conflict is driven by a political context that cannot be ignored without continually reproducing instability. One part of that political context is having Palestinian leaders and institutions that represent their people. For that, the U.S. will have to alter its policies so it is not standing behind those who do not, and therefore standing in the way.

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