Biden offers platitudes, ‘confidence building’ measures during meeting with Abbas

Yumna Patel

Mondoweiss  /  July 15, 2022

“Biden represents a continuity of Trump’s policies, especially on Jerusalem,” Jalal Abu Khater, a Palestinian writer and analyst from Jerusalem, tells Mondoweiss.

US President Joe Biden arrived in the occupied West Bank city of Bethlehem on Friday to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, the last stop on his two-day tour of Israel and the West Bank before the president heads to Saudi Arabia. 

Biden was welcomed by Abbas with an arrival ceremony at the presidential compound in Bethlehem, where the two held a press conference in front of officials, diplomats, and a select number of Palestinian and foreign journalists. 

During the press conference Biden spoke about slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed by Israeli forces in May while wearing her blue flak jacket and helmet, marked PRESS.

Struggling to pronounce her name correctly, Biden said that Abu Akleh’s death was an “enormous loss to the essential work of sharing with the world the story of the Palestinian people.”

He said that the US “will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death and will continue to stand up for media freedom everywhere in the world.”

While journalists were not allowed to ask questions during the conference, a number of Palestinian journalists wore black t-shirts with Abu Akleh’s face printed on the front, alongside the words #JusticeForShireen. 

During his remarks, Abbas said “the killers of the martyr journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, they need to be held accountable.”

Abbas and other Palestinian officials, along with Abu Akleh’s family, rejected a recent State Department report that said officials “could not reach a definitive conclusion” on who killed Abu Akleh. The report was widely met with anger and frustration by Palestinians, who have continued to demand a full independent investigation into the journalist’s killing. 

The US State Department has jurisdiction in seeking accountability for the killing of Abu Akeh, who holds American citizenship. Historically the American government has not sought accountability for citizens killed by Israeli fire, including Rachel Corrie, killed in Gaza in 2003 by Israeli forces. 

“[Biden] even dropped the issues of his own citizens when it comes to Israeli violations. When it comes to Palestine, it is clear it is not a priority nor on his agenda except in how it serves Israel,” Palestinian researcher and analyst, Ubai Aboudi, the Executive Director of Bisan Center for Research & Development, told Mondoweiss.

‘Two-State solution’

During the press conference in Bethlehem, Biden reaffirmed the official US position backing the two-state solution — a proposal that Palestinians and rights groups say has been dead for years, as Israel continues to build settlements illegally in the occupied territory and change facts on the ground. 

“Two states along the 1967 lines with mutually agreed upon swaps remains the best way to achieve equal measures of security, prosperity, freedom and democracy for the Palestinians as well as the Israelis,” Biden said. 

He went on to say that the “Palestinian people deserve a state of their own that is independent, sovereign, viable and contiguous,” but that the “ground is not ripe” for restarting peace talks. 

The US president did not speak on the continued expansion of Israeli settlements in the occupied territory, which are illegal under international law, and viewed by Palestinians as one of the largest obstacles to having a viable Palestinian state. 

Palestinian writer and analyst from Jerusalem, Jalal Abu Khater, 27, reflected on the US president’s speech, noting “[Biden] addressed the issue of Shireen, he addressed the issue of the two-state solution, he addressed Jerusalem without any kind of strong language or any kind of commitment.”

‘Biden represents a continuity of Trump’s policies, especially on Jerusalem’

Palestinian writer and analyst Jalal Abu Khater

“He did not mention East Jerusalem as the capital for the two-state solution, which is also a downgrade,” Abu Khater said. 

“[Biden] stressed so much about the unbreakable bond between the US and Israel, so he’s just here for a ceremonial visit and there’s nothing significant that will come out of this visit. He is only paying lip service,” Abu Khater, told Mondoweiss

During the press conference Abbas said “the key to peace” in the region “begins with ending the Israeli occupation of our land.” Abbas also called on Biden to re-open the shuttered US consulate in occupied East Jerusalem, and remove the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from the US “terror” list.  

“We know that Palestinians are only getting crumbs from such a move while Israelis are getting legitimacy and some form of whitewashing of their crimes. They’re getting some sort of a lifeboat to remain relevant on the international political arena,” Abu Khater explained. 

‘Confidence building measures’

Biden ended his trip in Bethlehem with a visit to the Church of Nativity, which Christians believe to be the birthplace of Jesus, before heading to Saudi Arabia. Earlier in the day, Biden visited the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem where he announced $100 million in US assistance to East Jerusalem hospitals. 

Augusta Victoria Hospital is one of six hospitals in occupied East Jerusalem that provide life-saving treatment to Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, including radiation and chemotherapy cancer treatments, and pediatric kidney dialysis. 

Biden called the six hospitals “the backbone of the Palestinian health care system.” The funding is subject to congressional approval, and will be paid out over several years. 

During Donald Trump’s tenure as president, he slashed $25 million in US funding for the hospitals as part of his broader effort to cut US aid to the Palestinian government and agencies like UNRWA. 

While it renewed funding to a number of Palestinian bodies, the US has maintained its billions of dollars in military support for Israel despite human rights organizations showing evidence of crimes of persecution, apartheid, and ethnic cleansing.

“When they are sending the Israeli army unconditional military aid, and the same military equipment is used in killing Palestinians, including US citizens, then they are actively participating in the crime,” Aboudi explained to Mondoweiss.

The hospital funding is part of a wider announcement of “confidence-building measures” by the US in an attempt to boost the standing of the PA. The US announced late Thursday a total of $316 million in support to the Palestinians, with the majority ($201 million) going to UNRWA, which provides humanitarian aid to millions of Palestinian refugees. 

The latest chunk of cash promised to UNRWA ups the Biden administration’s total support for the organization to $618 million since the start of 2021 – a much needed financial relief for the agency, which was dealt a huge financial blow when Trump slashed funding during his presidency. 

Another $15 million in humanitarian assistance will be provided to address food insecurity and other issues in the West Bank and Gaza, and another $7 million in grant money for programs that “promote Israeli-Palestinian collaboration and exchanges.”

The US also announced that Israel, which controls Palestinian telecommunications networks, will also allow Palestinians to achieve 4G connectivity by the end of next year, and will work to “ease access” at the Allenby Bridge, the land border that millions of Palestinians are forced to use to cross into Jordan, as they are banned from traveling through the Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv. 

Those measures, however, require Israeli follow through, and many Palestinians are both skeptical, and critical. 

“Biden represents a continuity of Trump’s policies, especially on Jerusalem,” Abu Khater said. An alternative path to US foreign policy in the region, Abu Khater said, is “to end all complicity with the crimes that Israel continues to commit and to stop treating Israel as if it’s a state above the law.”

Yumna Patel is the Palestine News Director for Mondoweiss