Joe Biden turns attention to Palestinians on final day of trip to Israel

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JERUSALEM – After two days of reaffirming America’s steadfast alliance with Israel, President Joe Biden on Friday turned his attention to the plight of the Palestinians, though he has already acknowledged he can’t give them what they want.

Shortly after arriving in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, Biden said he still supports the creation of an independent Palestinian nation alongside Israel but knows that won’t happen any time soon.

Instead, Biden visited a Palestinian hospital in East Jerusalem where he announced humanitarian assistance and met in Bethlehem with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. 

“Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measure of freedom, security, prosperity, and dignity and access to health care when you need it,” Biden said at the hospital. “It’s essential to living a life of dignity for all of us.”

Posters reading “Mr President this is apartheid” were posted along part of Biden’s route to Bethlehem in protest of Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinians.

The latest

  • Restoring ties: Biden has focused during his presidency on restoring ties with the Palestinians that had been ruptured during the Trump administration. Creation of an independent Palestinian nation alongside Israel has been the North Star of a negotiated settlement to the decades-old conflict. In recent years, various developments have diminished that prospect, including the internal political divisions in both camps.
  • Another setback: Some of the leverage Palestinians had was lost when Israel normalized relations with several Arab nations, a process started during the Trump administration and that the Biden administration hopes to expand.
  • Biden’s approach: While the Trump administration considered the so-called Abraham Accords a substitute for progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the Biden administration hopes to leverage normalization as a bridge toward progress on the issue. 
  • Small steps: As a sign of progress, the Biden administration pointed to the recent phone call between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the first contact at that level in several years.
  • Saudi overtures: Biden heads to Saudi Arabia after his meetings in Israel on Friday. Ahead of his arrival, the Saudis opened their airspace to “all air carriers,” signaling the end of their longstanding ban on Israeli flights overflying their territory – a key step toward normalization between the two nations. The White House said the decision paves the way for “a more integrated, stable and secure Middle East region.”

What’s happening

Biden is announcing several initiatives to benefit the Palestinian people, including more than $316 million in aid for various programs.

  • About $100 million will go to the East Jerusalem Hospitals Network to improve Palestinians’ access to health care services, such as oncology, dialysis, neo-natal intensive care and specialized maternity care.
  • Another $201 million will go to a United Nations relief program to deliver critical services to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
  • Additional initiatives include food security assistance, extending 4G digital access into the West Bank and Gaza, and restarting economic discussions between the Palestinians and Israelis.

Why it matters

East Jerusalem is predominantly Arab and claimed by Palestinian leaders as the future capital of their independent state.

Since then-President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017, Israeli government officials have participated in visits to East Jerusalem by U.S. officials. But they won’t accompany Biden Friday.

Biden isn’t expected to announce any progress toward his commitment of reopening a consulate in Jerusalem, which had served as a de facto embassy.

Top takeaways

Biden’s attempts to improve conditions for the Palestinians within the confines of the staunch support the United States typically extends to Israel, its top Middle East ally, is a balancing act between stark geopolitical realities and his lofty promise to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy. The other big test on his four-day Middle East trip is his final stop in Saudi Arabia.

Before Biden’s Friday evening arrival, Saudi Arabia announced it will open its airspace for all civilian planes, including those flying to and from Israel. Biden said the move was a result of months of “steady diplomacy” between his administration and Saudi Arabia. He called it “an important step towards building a more integrated and stable Middle East region.”

Biden has been criticized by some for visiting Saudi Arabia, which he vowed as a candidate to make a “pariah” state because of its human rights abuses. But diplomatic pragmatists say Biden must continue to engage with Saudi Arabia to have influence in the region.

What they are saying

  • After Biden’s remarks at Augusta Victoria Hospital in West Jerusalem on Friday, a head nurse for the pediatric intensive care unit of the hospital told Biden “Thank you for your support, but we need more justice, more dignity.”
  • “Israel must remain an independent, democratic, Jewish state,” Biden said during a news conference on Thursday. “The best way to achieve that remains a two-state solution for two people, both of whom have deep and ancient roots in this land, living side-by-side in peace and security.”
  • At that same news conference, Lapid also said the two-state solution is “a guarantee for a strong democratic state of Israel with a Jewish majority.” But he is serving as an interim prime minister amid looming elections.
  • “Biden is not in a position to talk about borders, security arrangements, or the administration of Jerusalem, but he can do what is needed for this moment, which is to remind everyone what the conflict is truly about and what any solution must take into account,” Michael Koplow of the Israel Policy Forum wrote Wednesday in a blog for the Times of Israel.

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Contributing: The Associated Press

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