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New U.S. State Department report shifts policy on the Israel-Palestinian conflict to

Supporters of Israel have been rubbing holes in their Ouija boards guessing how much further to the left the Biden administration will push U.S. Middle East policy from Trump’s iconoclastic positions. A new report indicates there will indeed be leftward shifts, but probably not all the way back to Obama’s strategy.

Until now—aside from a few minor pronouncements, a smattering of political appointments and a delay in President Biden calling Prime Minister Netanyahu after assuming office—there has been little by which to gauge Washington’s new approach to the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

However, the release of the 2020 Country Reports on Human Rights Practices this week, which the State Department annually produces, does reveal pointed indications about what Middle East watchers can expect.

On the plus side, the Biden administration used the phrase “Israel, West Bank and Gaza,” introduced by the Trump administration, instead of “Israel and the occupied Palestinian Territories,” the phrase used by the Obama administration.

On the negative side, the report reintroduced the term “occupied” to describe Israel’s liberation of territory over the Green Line during the 1967 Six-Day War. 

This language shows what some have long suspected—that the new administration will be less friendly than the previous one, but not as unfriendly as that of President Obama, which was one of the most hostile to Israel in recent years. 

Nonetheless, language matters. The use of the terms “occupied” and “occupation” reflects the Palestinian narrative that Israel’s presence in its historic heartland of Judea and Samaria is somehow illegitimate.

Yet in the report’s favor, not using the term “Occupied Palestinian Territories,” except when quoting other bodies, tells a story. Use of this term supports a particular narrative and designates the legal basis of ownership over the territories in question. 

This might seem like hair-splitting, but when divining foreign-policy intentions, these minor nuances indicate policy direction and how the State Department interprets international law. In fact, there is no such thing as “Palestinian territories” under international law.

Likewise, how the United States phrases its position on the “settlements” reveals its attitude toward Israeli communities over the Green Line. The United States—unlike much of the world—has never designated these communities as “illegal.” 

Rather, it has edged toward that position, as in the decision by the Obama administration at the tail end of its second term in 2016 to abstain from a controversial United Nations Security Council resolution demanding an end to Israeli settlements on Palestinian territory—which allowed it to pass easily. 

It was the first time in nearly 40 years that the Security Council had passed a resolution critical of Israeli settlements—because the United States had always used its veto. Obama had also used language during his tenure very close to the “settlements are the obstacles to peace” line used frequently by Europeans and others.

The latest report makes little mention of the settlements, and when pushed on this issue during a subsequent press conference U.S. State Department spokesman Ned Price clarified the position. He asserted that the U.S. position had not changed, and explained it further: “We—as you have heard me say before—we continue to encourage all sides to avoid actions—both sides, I should say—to avoid actions that would put the two-state solution further out of reach.”

In other words, without saying so explicitly, the United States believes the settlements are not an exercise of the Jewish People’s right to build communities in its historic and ancestral homeland. Rather, they are potentially standing in the way of a Palestinian state. 

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