US President Joe Biden is on a visit to Israel as part of his first Middle East tour since assuming office. The visit will also take him to the occupied West Bank.
Biden will also travel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, to attend a regional Arab summit along with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt.
Statements from White House officials suggest that Biden’s trip, which comes after almost 18 months, has the following goals:
to help integrate Israel further into the region;
to solidify a long-lasting cease-fire between Saudi Arabia and Yemen;
to align Saudi Arabia, Israel and other Arab Middle East partners on a stalled nuclear deal with Iran;
and to counter the influence of China and Russia in the region.
Whither the Peace Talks?
The major thing that seems to be missing from his agenda is to reach out to the Palestinians. Biden will meet the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah after his visit to Jerusalem.
But the resumption of peace talks between Israel and Palestinians, which were stalled since April 2014 due to Tel Aviv’s refusal to stop settlement building, release Palestinian detainees and evade a two-state solution, is not on Biden’s main agenda.
During the 2020 presidential campaign, Biden pledged to reverse Trump's cut-off of diplomatic ties with the Palestinian Authority and restart funding for programmes focused on security, economic development, and humanitarian aid for Palestinians.
Biden’s team addressed the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its solutions along the following points:
Biden believes in the worth and value of every Palestinian and every Israeli. He will work to ensure that Palestinians and Israelis enjoy equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy.”
His policies will be grounded in a commitment to a two-state solution, where Israel and the future viable state of Palestine will live together in peace, security, and mutual recognition.
He opposes any unilateral steps by either side that undermine a two-state solution. Biden also opposes annexation and settlement expansion and will continue to oppose both as President.
He will take immediate steps to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, consistent with US law, including assistance to refugees, and work to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza.
Reopening of the US consulate in East Jerusalem.
Work to reopen the PLO mission in Washington
Donald Trump's Policies Continue
But President Biden continues his lip service to Palestinians without any major change in the policy of his predecessor, Donald Trump.
It is true that his administration restored the financial support to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA) in 2021, which was suspended by Trump in 2018. The US is the UNRWA's largest donor. But besides this, none of Biden’s promises to Palestinians has been accomplished. He expressed support for the resumption of peace talks but no progress has been made so far.
Biden also failed to fulfil his promise of reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem and the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) office in Washington, both of which were closed by Trump.
During Trump's presidency, the US closed its Consulate-General in East Jerusalem, which functioned as the primary venue for Washington’s outreach to the Palestinian Authority, and merged it with the US embassy. The move was part of Trump's decision to relocate the embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem.
During a joint news conference with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah in the occupied West Bank on 26 May 2021, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said:
“I am here to underscore the commitment of the United States to rebuilding a relationship with the Palestinian Authority and with the Palestinian people, a relationship built on mutual respect and also a shared conviction that Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve in the West Bank, equal measures of freedom, security, opportunity, and dignity.”
Blinken specifically said that the US would reopen the consulate in Jerusalem for the Palestinian people. He also pledged to provide humanitarian aid, including $5.5 million in immediate disaster assistance for Gaza and $32 million in emergency funding for the UN Relief and Works Agency.
No Condemnation for Killings
Biden has failed to keep his promises as far as Palestinians are concerned. He did not break his silence when illegal construction continued in occupied Palestinian territories during the tenure of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his successor Naftali Bennet, both known for their pro-settler views.
In the last three months, over 60 Palestinians have been killed by Israeli forces. But Biden has failed to condemn the killings. The worst among them is the cold-blooded murder of Al Jazeera reporter Shireen Abu Akleh in the West Bank town of Jenin on 11 May. Shireen, a Palestinian-American journalist, was shot dead by an Israeli bullet while reporting on Israeli raid on Palestinians.
Biden and his administration failed to condemn the murder and even released a carefully worded statement regarding its assessment of the killing, saying that gunfire from Israeli positions “was likely responsible for the death of Shireen Abu Akleh”. However, it dismissed the incident as an unintentional “result of tragic circumstances”.
Biden's Main Aim: A Middle East Military Alliance
Since Biden took office, Israel has increased both settlement expansion and demolition of Palestinian homes. In the first six months of this year, Israel has approved plans for 4,427 housing units in illegal settlements in the occupied West Bank.
A total of 1,657 people were displaced as a result of the demolishing of 1,269 structures in the occupied West Bank, including East Jerusalem.
A recent analysis by Norwegian Refugee Council (NRC) shows that for each day Biden spent in office since January 2021, Israel has displaced an average of three Palestinians.
The Palestinians in the occupied territories hope that Biden’s visit can act as a catalyst for the peace process. However, Palestinian officials have low expectations from the visit and say that it is likely to focus on other regional matters.
Osama Al Qawasmi, the spokesman of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah faction, expressed hope that the visit can push forward a political process that leads to an end of the Israeli occupation.
He noted that President Mahmoud Abbas called on the US administration to take meaningful steps that push a two-state solution.
However, Wasel Abo Youssef, an official of the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO), said he was not optimistic about any potential outcomes of the visit.
“The US position has always been to support the Israeli government and cover its crimes. Biden’s remarks regarding his visit also show how he will support the Israeli occupation,” Abo Youssef said.
Palestinian citizens also echoed those sentiments. Gaza’s Fady Khalil said that the Palestinian people do not have the instruments that would get the world to consider their case. He added that the visit of the US President is likely to be a routine one that leads to economic aid and nothing else.
The major aim of Biden’s visit is the establishment of a new mid-East military alliance that includes Israel and Arab countries, in order to confront Iran and to expand normalisation between Israel and Arab nations. This may happen at the expense of the Palestinian cause.
(The author is Senior Editor with The Peninsula newspaper in Qatar. This is an opinion article and the views expressed are the author's own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)
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