Biden to visit West Bank as persistent Trump-era policies frustrate Palestinians

JERUSALEM — President Joe Biden will travel to the West Bank on Friday to meet with Palestinian leaders frustrated with a number of Trump-era policies that remain in place, as significant progress is expected to be made toward peace with Israel.

Biden planned to meet with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas and announce a number of new initiatives around improving healthcare, expanding 4G digital access in Gaza and the West Bank by the end of the day. end of 2023 as well as other measures to stimulate economic growth and help Palestinian refugees. , and reduce food insecurity, the White House said.

While Biden has improved relations between US and Palestinian leaders from what they were under his predecessor, his administration has been slow to undo several measures put in place by former President Donald Trump that Palestinians say , go directly to their goal of an independent state.

The US embassy in Israel remains in Jerusalem, where Trump moved it from Tel Aviv, the US consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem and offices for Palestinians in Washington remain closed, and Israeli settlements in the West Bank that Trump does not not criticized continued to develop.

Administration officials indicated that there would be no changes to these policies during this visit. Biden’s national security adviser, Jake Sullivan, said the United States would like to reopen the consulate and discussions with Israelis and Palestinians regarding the move are ongoing.

“As for the actual tangibles in their hands, they’re probably going to end up with a few statements, a visit and a handshake,” said Shira Efron, director of policy research at the Israel Policy Forum, of the Palestinians.

Biden was due to arrive in the West Bank after two days of meetings in Israel where he reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution but said he did not see it as something that would be achieved in the “short term”.

“Israel must remain an independent and democratic Jewish state, the ultimate guarantee and guarantor of the security of the Jewish people not only in Israel but throughout the world,” Biden said Thursday. “I believe that deep down inside me, and the best way to achieve that is still a two-state solution for two people, who both have deep and ancient roots in this country, living side by side in peace and security.”

A woman walks past a billboard, part of a campaign organized by the Israeli rights group B’Tselem, in Bethlehem on Wednesday. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP-Getty Images

A senior administration official said that while the White House would like to make more progress toward a peace deal between the Israelis and the Palestinians, they are “very realistic about it” and trying to avoid a top-down approach.

Biden administration officials have sought to highlight progress they have made in improving US-Palestinian relations by restoring funding to the Palestinians that was cut by Trump and resuming talks with Palestinian leaders after the Trump administration has shut down nearly all communications.

“Given the situation when we took office – there was really no connection, no discussion with the Palestinians, funding had been completely cut off, there was really no prospect of political discussions of any kind. whatever,” the official said. “So we’ve been working to restore a lot of those connections.”

Shortly before Biden’s visit, Israeli interim Prime Minister Yair Lapid spoke with Abbas by phone, the first publicly acknowledged contact between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in five years, and Israel announced it would add 1,500 work permits for Palestinian workers and would legalize the status of 5,500 undocumented Palestinians and others in the occupied West Bank.

Biden began his Friday schedule with a visit to a hospital in East Jerusalem, an area contested by Israelis and Palestinians, where he will announce a $100 million funding proposal to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, which provides specialized care for Palestinians. the patients. Funding is subject to congressional approval, the White House said.

The hospital stop has been a source of tension among some Israelis who view a US president’s visit without an accompanying Israeli official as an aggravation of Palestinian claims to this part of the city, which the Palestinians hope that it will one day become the capital of an independent government. Palestinian state. Several Republican members of Congress have urged Biden not to make the visit for this reason.

After the hospital stop, Biden will travel to the West Bank to meet Abbas in Bethlehem, where he will also visit the Church of the Nativity before flying from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia – the first time a president is flying directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia. Arabia, White House officials said.

Biden administration officials say they have intentionally taken a more passive approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the previous administration. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, he said his son-in-law Jared Kushner would make peace in the Middle East. Kushner eventually unveiled a Middle East peace plan that was crafted without Palestinian participation and was never implemented.

“We didn’t come in with a top-down plan. But we’ve always said that if the parties are willing to talk, which we think they should, we’ll be there right next to them, and we’re looking forward to that day, and I think that will be part of the conversation that the president will have tomorrow in Bethlehem,” the administration official said.

But Biden embraced a key Trump administration decision: the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. Biden seeks to replicate the pattern between Israel and other Arab countries, a goal that is expected to be a central theme of his visit to Saudi Arabia.

Another point of tension during the visit will also be the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, for which human rights groups and journalists have pushed Biden to hold Israel accountable. The US concluded earlier this month that Abu Akleh was most likely killed by gunfire from Israeli military positions, but US investigators said they could not come to a definitive conclusion on the origins of the bullet that killed her, the State Department said.

Investigations by the United Nations and independent Western media revealed that Israeli fire resulted in his death.

Secretary of State Antony Blinken spoke with Abu Akleh’s family before the trip and invited them to Washington for further discussions.

“This just tragic and horrific incident is something that was on all of our minds,” the official said. “We have made public what we believe happened and we have called on the Israelis to conclude their report and make it public as soon as possible.”

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