For half a day after President Biden was inaugurated last week, the Twitter account and website of the U.S. Embassy in Israel stated that the new interim ambassador, Jonathan Shrier, would be “Ambassador to Israel, the West Bank, and Gaza.”
That seemed indicative of a longtime, well-thought-out strategy with the Biden imprimatur signaling a new approach to Middle East policy. We were quickly told that it was not anything like that. It was in fact nothing more than a low-level piece of diplomatic bungling that was quickly reversed. One thing was clear, though—at the end of that half-day, no one was happy.
The State Department later clarified the matter further, saying that the online change was “an inadvertent edit,” or more likely a manifestation of some civil servant’s Middle East fantasy.
Let’s stop for a moment and analyze what the true catalyst for this type of change might have been. From the Israel side of things, diplomats at that end of the equation are very sensitive to any movement or adjustment of the status quo that might affect the very fragile reality in the region.
After contemplating what might have been a shift in the Biden administration’s approach to Israel and that part of the world, it actually looked like a positive development from the Israel perspective. After all, if the U.S. was actually trying to say that the West Bank (which we know as Judea and Samaria) and Gaza were recognizable state-like entities, or the future state of Palestine, wouldn’t that have warranted the appointment of a separate ambassador?
That means there should have been an ambassador to Israel as well as an ambassador to the West Bank and Gaza, which seems to indicate that the new administration does not want to utter the word Palestine. After all, the United Nations has had an ambassador representing Palestine for decades, which might just indicate one of the many symptoms of general irrelevance and worthlessness of the UN.
The Biden foreign policy team that made the decision to adjust the ambassadorial role made a sloppy, if not colossal, error last week by combining Israel together with the West Bank and Gaza. Israelis saw the “inadvertent edit” as a rattling of the status quo, while the Palestinian Authority saw it as an affront that had the State Department doing away with the dream of Palestine.
The PA suffered through four years of President Trump, who declared them irrelevant and relegated them to the margins of the region. In a way, last week, the Biden team, led by Secretary of State Antony Blinken, stated that Jerusalem will continue to be recognized as the capital of Israel and that the U.S. Embassy will remain where it is, in the holy city.
When it comes down to it that amounts to the same attitude on Palestine as that of the Trump administration. Basically, that means support for a Palestinian state, but not really. After all, the PA was hoping for a Biden victory, anticipating a U.S. reversal of policy on Israel with an Obama-like push in favor of the Palestinian aspirations. It’s early in the process, but it does not look like that is happening.
Could that have been the Biden intention? Whatever it was, it did happen for a few hours, so someone was thinking something new or was just very confused. Let’s look at it this way: the U.S. cannot have an ambassador to the West Bank or Gaza, either individually or together, because those are not sovereign entities. Yes, of course, the UN did that many years ago, but it would be unbecoming of the United States to appoint an ambassador to a nonexistent country.
From the other side of the equation, the attempted move or “inadvertent edit” does not help anyone or anything. If the Palestinian representative demonstrated anything these many years, it is not a state side by side that is their objective. Anything short of supplanting the Jewish state either wholly or partially will just not satisfy those folks. That is just one of the multitudes of reasons why there have been no negotiations between the PA and Israel for many years.
There’s an additional piece to this puzzle: if one was dreaming about moving in this direction, how could there be one ambassador to both the West Bank and Gaza when the representatives of those areas are literally at each other’s throats and have almost never been able to get along? The faction that rules Gaza—Hamas—despises the faction that runs the West Bank—Fatah. If the U.S. were to dole out ambassadors, they would really need two of them in this instance.
On the matter of having one or separate diplomatic representatives to all three of those Middle East locations, a prerequisite of that type of arrangement might be the ambassadors’ ability to visit the areas they are representing, which at this point in time is probably not possible. That might be the best criterion to judge whether it is proper to appoint a diplomatic representative to an area of the world: if said ambassador can stay overnight in a hotel in Ramallah or Gaza City without an attempt on his life being made.
In the meantime, the Biden administration has pledged to send the Palestinian Authority hundreds of millions of dollars in aid that was cut off by President Trump due to PA intransigence. As far as leaders like Mahmoud Abbas, the PA president now in the 13th year of a four-year term, see it, the U.S. can keep their ambassador far away so long as they send the moolah.
To this point, over all these years attempted peace agreements with the U.S., and even the Europeans as brokers on occasion, never has a peace talker or negotiator stayed overnight in either Ramallah or Gaza City. In all instances—whether it was Secretaries of State John Kerry and Hillary Clinton or the European Union’s Tony Blair—after a day’s work they always traveled back to Jerusalem to the King David or the David Citadel Hotel. And it wasn’t just about the expansive, award-winning breakfasts in these favorite diplomatic locales.
Will there be a change in policy emanating from the Biden administration as it affects Israel? In all likelihood, it will be nuanced, superficial, and meaningless. The Biden presidency is barely a week old, but so long as major diplomatic changes can be explained as an “inadvertent edit,” I think we will be good.
Larry Gordon is editor of 5 Towns Jewish Times. Comments, questions, and suggestions are welcome at 5TJT.com and on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter.