Biden administration to ‘renew’ relations with Palestinians

On the beach in Gaza City (Reuters)

James Reinl

The National  /  January 26, 2021

US envoy Richard Mills said Washington will reverse Trump moves to cut funding for Palestinians and take tougher line on Israeli settlements.

US President Joe Biden will seek to renew relations with Palestinians and reverse the previous Trump administration’s decisions to cut funding to them and shutter their diplomatic outposts.

In the administration’s first statement to the UN on peace in the Middle East, deputy US envoy Richard Mills said Washington would reverse some of ex-President Donald Trump’s moves against Palestinians and take a tougher line on Israeli settlement building.

“This will involve renewing US relations with the Palestinian leadership, and Palestinian people, relations which have atrophied over the last four years,” Mr Mills said at online UN Security Council talks on Tuesday.

“President Biden has been clear in his attempt to restore US assistance programs that support economic development and humanitarian aid for the Palestinian people, and to take steps to reopen diplomatic missions that were closed by the last US administration.”

In four years, Mr Trump overturned decades of US policy in the Middle East. He recognised Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and Israeli sovereignty over the disputed Golan Heights, cut millions of dollars of funding to Palestinians, shuttered a Palestinian office in Washington and backed Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

Officials from the new US administration have said that the US embassy will stay in Jerusalem, but have signalled they will take a tougher line against Israel on settlement-building on the West Bank and any planned annexation of Palestinian land.

“The US will urge Israel’s government and the Palestinian Authority to avoid unilateral steps that make a two-state solution more difficult, such as annexation of territory, settlement activity, demolitions, incitement to violence,” said Mr Mills.

Earlier at the meeting, Palestinian Foreign Minister Riyadh Maliki called Mr Biden to “repair the damage” left by Mr Trump and reverse his “unlawful” and precedent-busting moves that favoured Israel and angered Palestinians.

“We look forward to the reversal of the unlawful and hostile measures undertaken by the Trump administration and to working together for peace,” Mr Maliki told the UN council in its first meeting on the issue since Mr Biden’s inauguration.

“We welcome the decision of the new administration to re-join the international law-based order and hope the US will play an important role in multilateral efforts for peace in the Middle East.”

Mr Maliki warned that Israel still seeks to annex swathes of land and ruin any chances for the creation of a future Palestinian state, pointing to the demolitions of ever-more Palestinian homes and plans for 3,000 new settler homes on the occupied West Bank.

He was supported by Arab League Secretary-General Ahmed Aboul-Gheit, who also urged the Biden administration to “correct” steps by the Trump administration that were “not useful” to the peace process.

Still, Israel’s UN ambassador Gilad Erdan blamed the Palestinians for stalling peace efforts, accusing them of fomenting violence and making “outrageous demands” when the only route to a peace deal was talking to Israeli negotiators.

Deals brokered last year by the Trump administration to normalise ties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and other Arab countries, known as the Abraham Accord, meant the region was “no longer held hostage by the Palestinians”, said Mr Erdan.

“Thanks to the Abraham accords, things have changed for good,” the Israeli envoy told the UN’s 15-member body.

“The accords have brought incredible opportunities to all those who have embraced them. These opportunities are even greater than the economic and cultural cooperation already taking place. They bring stability and new hope for the future of the region.”

Addressing the council for the first time since starting his job as UN peace envoy to the region, Tor Wennesland also talked up the normalisation deal between Israel and the UAE — but said more work was necessary.

“I hope that the promise of the recent agreements made between Israel and Arab countries will lead to a situation where a more peaceful Middle East can be realised,” said Mr Wennesland.

“However, it requires leaders on all sides to re-engage meaningfully and return to the path of negotiations.”

The Palestinians seek all of the West Bank and East Jerusalem — areas captured by Israel in a 1967 war — for an independent state and the removal of many of the estimated 700,000 Israeli settlers who built homes on those areas.

James Reinl – UN/US correspondent, New York