Senior Palestinian Officials: Biden Abandoned Us to Avoid Turmoil in Bennett's Government

An exasperated Palestinian leadership accuses the Biden administration of failing to take Israel to task over commitments it made, and don't see any of that changing when the president visits the Middle East later this month: 'All we hear from the Americans is that we have to wait'

Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Palestinian President Mahmou Abbas in Ramallah on Tuesday.
U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in March.Credit: Alex Brandon/AP
Jack Khoury
Jack Khoury

The Palestinian leadership believes that the Biden administration is refraining from pressuring Israel to fulfill its commitments to the Palestinians, so as not to destabilize the Bennett government.

"There has been almost no progress," a senior Palestinian official told Haaretz. "All we see is escalation. All we hear from the Americans is that we have to wait, because Bennett and Lapid's situation is complicated."

The current Israeli government, led by Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, who is meant to replace Bennett next year, ended Benjamin Netanyahu's 12 consecutive years in power. However, the Bennett-Lapid government relies on many coalition partners across the political spectrum and faces constant challenges to its stability.

Palestinian officials voiced their frustration in recent talks with Western and Arab diplomats, ahead of a planned Middle East visit by U.S. President Joe Biden.

According to several senior Palestinian officials, President Mahmoud Abbas and other top figures raised demands for confidence-building measures and financial aid back in May 2021, in talks with Secretary of State Antony Blinken.

A key demand was reopening the U.S. consulate in East Jerusalem, which served the city's Palestinians residents and was closed during the Trump presidency. The consulate is seen by the Palestinian leadership as a sign of the American position on East Jerusalem, which the Palestinians claim as the future capital of their state.

Another request was the reopening of the PLO office in Washington, which was similarly shut under former President Donald Trump's orders.

Further demands had to do with Israel's policies. The Palestinian officials requested that the United States do more to stop the expansion of Israeli settlements and reduce the scope of Israeli military activity in Area A of the West Bank, which under the Oslo Accords is meant to be under full Palestinian control. Other demands included the release of some prisoners Israel had said it would release nearly a decade ago, and restoring Palestinian presence to the Allenby Bridge crossing, also known as al-Karameh Bridge, which connects the West Bank and Jordan and serves as the main exit point for many Palestinians traveling abroad.

"We haven't asked for anything new," a senior Palestinian official stressed. "Everything was according to prior agreements or signed treaties."

'Bennett can't take any real steps'

Since Biden took office, American officials first asked the Palestinians to wait for a new Israeli government – which was sworn in a year ago. When that happened, one Palestinian official said, "the atmosphere was positive and optimistic. Abbas came to [Defense Minister Benny] Gantz's home, senior figures like [PLO Executive Committee Chairman] Hussein al-Sheikh and [Palestinian security chief] Majed Faraj met with him and with Lapid, and direct contact channels were reopened."

But in practice, the official added, confidence-building measures were hardly taken, save for the upgrading of the cellular grid in the West Bank and allowing Palestinians in the West Bank to reunite with immediate family in the Gaza Strip.

The Palestinians reiterated in almost every interaction with the Biden administration the importance of the measures they had requested, the official said, and "the answer we got was that the Bennett government can't take any real steps until the budget is passed in November."

President Abbas and those close to him were extremely frustrated at the inaction, sources say. "The feeling was that we're playing by the political situation in Israel, but still, we waited," a senior official admitted.

The Palestinian Authority had hoped that things would change after the budget was eventually passed, giving the Israeli government some level of stability, but more disappointment ensued.

"In recent weeks we see incursions into Palestinian cities every day. From the start of the year dozens were killed, including Shireen Abu Akleh, construction permits are being issued for settlements, and now there's even legislation against the Palestinian flag," a top Palestinian official complained.

Family and friends carry the coffin of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli raid in Jenin in the occupied West Bank, as clashes erupted with Israeli security forces, during her funeral in Jerusalem in May.Credit: Ammar Awad/Reuters

Despite this, he added, the Biden administration has refrained from pressuring Israel into action. The Palestinian leadership believes that the U.S. administration is interested first and foremost in the Israeli government’s survival, and wishes to avoid any shock to the Bennett-Lapid coalition.

Saudi fears

One exasperated Palestinian leadership figure noted that when the demand to reopen the Jerusalem consulate was raised, U.S. officials said that the issue awaits Bennett's call. "If the U.S. wants to open a consulate that had existed for decades, it's up to Bennett? Maybe someone thinks we'll wait for Lapid now, like there's no administration but the Israeli government, no United Nations, no international community, and no Arab world," he said.

The Palestinians hold no hopes for Biden's visit later this month. "Even during Trump's time, when he talked about 'the deal of the century,' we said we'll give it a chance," one official said. "The sense is that this administration doesn't want to present anything, at least not in the foreseeable future."

Meanwhile, ordinary Palestinians are increasingly critical of their leaders, who many view as not trying to pressure either Israel or the United States. Members of Fatah and other Palestinian groups noted that the Palestinian National Council had authorized Abbas to take steps like revoking recognition of Israel and stopping security coordination with it, but he has so far refrained from doing so, despite his many threats.

A recent concern in Ramallah is that Biden may seek to push for normalization between Israel and Saudi Arabia without consideration for the Palestinian issue.

Israeli sources told Haaretz that one proposal under discussion would lead to direct flights between Tel Aviv and Jedda for Muslim pilgrims from Israel and the West Bank.

The sources said the United Arab List's chair, Mansour Abbas, made a similar request in talks with Foreign Minister Lapid. "This is a very important issue to [Mansour] Abbas, and he raises it in every conversation," one of the sources added. "If it happens, he'll take credit for it, too. With the Palestinians, he knows there's no progress to be made at this point."

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