The statement by U.S. President Joe Biden in Bethlehem on Friday didn’t provide a groundbreaking U.S. position on anything related to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Biden positioned himself somewhere between Donald Trump, who strived to shatter the Palestinians’ dream for a homeland, and Barack Obama, who during the reign of Benjamin Netanyahu pushed for a peace agreement while failing to advance concrete steps.
Senior Palestinian officials who attended the meeting with Biden said they felt a measure of cautious optimism at its conclusion. “The meeting was significant in terms of its timing and the message it conveyed,” said a senior Palestinian official who asked to remain anonymous.
“Also important was the time devoted to this meeting, which included a short one-on-one with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. Now the test will lie in implementation,” said the official.
He added that, unlike previous presidents, Biden was familiar with the details of the conflict and understood its key issues. But the extent to which the Biden administration was willing to initiate any moves was unclear, he said.
The Palestinian side realizes that the Biden administration isn’t about to present guidelines for a permanent solution or convene an Israeli-Palestinian peace conference. After all, far-reaching moves aren’t feasible when Israel has a caretaker government and the midterm elections are approaching in the United States.
But Ramallah does expect specific moves such as the opening of a PLO office in Washington and the removal of the organization from the list of terror groups, and/or the opening of a U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem. The administration is well aware of the Palestinians’ expectations, but it’s unclear if and when any decisions will be made.
Biden spoke about a two-state solution within the 1967 borders and the possibility of land swaps, but he skipped over the question of implementation, ignoring the settlements and the extent to which he considers them an obstacle. He also didn’t discuss the degree to which the administration would block any plans to expand the settlements.
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He mentioned Jerusalem as a city for all its residents. He didn’t even consider defining East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
In his meeting with Abbas, Biden stressed issues that are more convenient for the administration, ones that don’t upset Israel. He noted several times the $316 million to be transferred to the Palestinians, $201 million of which will go to the UNRWA refugee relief agency, $100 million to hospitals in East Jerusalem subject to approval from Congress, and $15 million for improving nutrition efforts.
All these are decoupled from any political message. Hospital directors in East Jerusalem told Biden that the distress Palestinians are suffering is a direct result of the Israeli occupation, not any extraneous factor.
In contrast to Biden, Abbas chose to mention everything that could impede a two-state solution, from the evils of the occupation and its implications for the lives of Palestinians to the settlements. Abbas said the normalization of Israel’s relations with Arab states wouldn’t help achieve a diplomatic solution, adding that “stability and peace in the region will start here, not the other way around.”
He mentioned the Arab peace initiative, also known as the Saudi peace initiative, three times. Abbas is striving for a Palestinian state based on the 1967 borders, in exchange for a normalization with Arab countries, but he realizes that there is nothing to discuss with the current administration on this issue.
Palestinian leaders didn’t miss an opportunity to talk about the death of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, knowing that this issue was at the core of the Palestinian consensus. Abbas’ office limited media coverage of the meeting but allowed a protest at the auditorium where the joint statements were made.
Palestinian journalists showed up wearing black shirts bearing Abu Akleh’s picture. A chair with a portrait of her was left empty in the first row, and her name was mentioned often. The White House wanted to prevent any embarrassing scenes, noting that Biden would refer to Abu Akleh but wouldn’t allow any questions. He said the United States would continue to insist on a full and transparent probe into the circumstances of her death but didn’t say how and when this would be done.
Even though the U.S. president’s words reflected a positive spirit, both in the statement to the media and Biden’s meeting with his Palestinian counterpart, the success of the visit to Bethlehem will be judged by actions, not words. Ultimately the administration will have to decide whether the Palestinians are beggars receiving aid packages or whether they’ll be treated like a nation striving for freedom and self-determination.