After decades of on-and-off negotiations and failed peace initiatives, it is time for a shift in U.S. policy toward Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. Jettisoning former president Donald Trump’s Peace to Prosperity plan is a vital step, but it will not be enough to move beyond the status quo. Instead of reviving a moribund peace process or simply abandoning U.S. engagement, President Joe Biden’s administration should place a rights-based approach at the center of its strategy.
The approach, as broadly defined here, would prioritize protecting the rights and human security of Palestinians and Israelis over maintaining a peace process and attempting short-term fixes. It would reaffirm and safeguard Israeli rights to security and peace while paying equal attention to long-neglected Palestinian rights, including freedom of movement and freedom from violence, dispossession, discrimination, and occupation—whether in the West Bank, East Jerusalem, Gaza, or, in specific ways, inside Israel.1
Making this approach a central pillar could help change the political calculations of Palestinians and Israelis, alter the negative trajectory the parties are on, and rebuild prospects for a durable peace. It also has the benefit of being more consistent with the Biden administration’s overall foreign policy posture and requires less and not more U.S. investment.2
Such an approach would require discarding policies that entrench the status quo and empower an anti-democratic trajectory among Israeli decisionmakers, as well as deepen permanent occupation. Likewise, it would require discarding policies that fuel anti-democratic trends in Palestinian governance and reduce accountability to their people. Essentially, a rights-based approach necessitates accountability for violations of people’s rights and of international law. It is compatible with reviving a two-state dispensation, while being open to other alternatives; and simply recognizes that the current peace process scaffolding sustains occupation and is structurally incapable of delivering peace and human security.
This approach is offered with humility—academics, activists, and policymakers have previously discussed aspects of a rights-based approach—and it will have to emerge organically from listening to the concerns of those impacted by the conflict and in particular those without sufficient recourse to safeguard their rights, not least Palestinian refugees.
Outlined in this paper are some principal policy options that could be derived from such an approach. Over the past eighteen months, the authors consulted with experts from diverse professional and personal backgrounds to discuss prescriptions for the United States in light of the deteriorating circumstances of the conflict. Roundtable discussions were held with civil society organizations, advocacy groups, and thought leaders engaged in work to support Israeli-Palestinian peace or to uphold international law and human rights both in the United States and abroad.
The authors of this paper identified four overarching areas of focus: (1) prioritize rights and protect people, (2) roll back the Trump administration’s actions and reassert international law, (3) clarify expectations for Palestinians and Israelis, and (4) support new multilateral approaches and accountability. In furthering these objectives, the United States could take the following steps:
- Clearly assert—given ongoing Israeli actions that make achieving a sovereign and viable Palestinian state unlikely—that the United States will only support an alternative solution that guarantees full equality and enfranchisement for all those residing in the territory under Israeli control; it will not endorse two separate and unequal systems.
- Reset U.S.-Palestinian bilateral political engagement by working to reopen the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Mission in Washington; separating the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem from the U.S. embassy to Israel; and affirming the U.S. intention to open an embassy to Palestine in East Jerusalem, while also taking tangible measures to preserve the Palestinian national institutional presence and collective residency in the city.
- Directly, and with other states, work to restore funding to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA) to ensure it is able to meet its historic commitment to Palestinian refugees until a durable solution to their statelessness is possible.
- Encourage and facilitate—even though Palestinians are responsible for their own political renewal—reconciliation between the two Palestinian parties Hamas and Fatah, conditioned on Hamas’s respect for international law and its commitment to refrain from targeting Israeli civilians. To this end, and in the interests of Palestinian political renewal and representativeness, encourage and support the holding of all three rounds of proposed Palestinian elections.
- Work with the Palestinian leadership to reform social welfare payments to Palestinian prisoners held by Israel and the families of those killed in political violence, as well as to clarify that violence against civilians is not being incentivized; facilitate the removal of congressional legislative restrictions on U.S.-Palestinian relations and assistance programs; and continue to use executive prerogatives to narrowly construe aid restrictions to Palestinians.
- Work with relevant authorities to end the Gaza blockade and the separation of the Strip from the rest of the occupied territories, and reverse U.S. policies that treat Gaza and the West Bank as separate territorial and administrative units.
- Reaffirm the U.S. position that Israeli settlements are inconsistent with international law, end policies that treat them as part of Israel, and differentiate between Israel and its illegal settlements in all bilateral treaties and cooperation programs.
- Establish mechanisms for oversight, end-use monitoring, transparency, and accountability for U.S. defense equipment transferred to Israel, and identify ways to prevent U.S. assistance from being used to facilitate annexation or human rights violations.
- Uphold international law and United Nations (UN) resolutions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by refraining from using U.S. vetoes at the UN Security Council and working cooperatively with UN agencies and other multilateral mechanisms in support of the recommendations outlined here.
- Avoid further fueling a regional arms race by not linking U.S. weapons transfers with Israel-Arab state normalization agreements.
- Ensure that U.S. laws, regulations, and economic agreements—as well as the management of any enterprise funds, including those that support regional economic cooperation between Israel and Arab states—comply with legal obligations, particularly UN Security Council Resolution 2334 (2016), and support the promotion of human rights in the region.
The ideas and detailed recommendations that follow should inform a practical debate on how to approach Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking and how U.S. engagement might better advance a just and enduring political solution that promotes the human dignity and security of both Israelis and Palestinians.