The National / March 17, 2021
Four-page US memo details Biden administration’s approach to relations with the Palestinian Authority and jump-starting the peace process.
The US administration is looking to ‘reset’ relations with the Palestinians with a plan that includes $15 million in Covid-19 assistance and a rollback of several Trump administration positions that favoured Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank and did not prioritise the two-state solution, an internal memo reveals.
The official document, obtained exclusively by The National on Wednesday, was raised to US Secretary of State Anthony Blinken on March 1, by acting assistant secretary of state for near eastern Affairs Joey Hood.
It was drafted by deputy assistant secretary of state for Israeli-Palestinian affairs Hady Amr and his team.
The memo, The US Palestinian Reset and the Path Forward, is the most detailed proposal so far by the Biden team to rebalance relations with the Palestinians after four years of Donald Trump, who cut ties with Ramallah.
The US memo acknowledges new challenges in approaching the Palestinian situation.
“As we reset US relations with the Palestinians, the Palestinian body politic is at an inflection point as it moves towards its first elections in 15 years,” it says.
“At the same time, we [the US] suffer from a lack of connective tissue following the 2018 closure of the PLO office in Washington and refusal of Palestinian Authority leadership to directly engage with our embassy to Israel,” the memo says.
It mentions growing disparities between Israelis and Palestinians and outlines a “reset under way and the path ahead”.
The memo defines the US vision on the issue as one “to advance freedom, security, and prosperity for both Israelis and Palestinians in the immediate term which is important in its own right, but also as means to advance the prospects of a negotiated two-state solution”.
The Trump administration’s peace plan – unveiled at the White House in January 2020 – begrudgingly backed a two-state end goal for the conflict but was heavily criticised for ignoring key demands of Palestinian negotiators, including recognising east Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state.
The Biden administration memo recommends voicing US principles on achieving Israeli-Palestinian peace under a two-state solution framework “based on the 1967 lines with mutually agreed land swaps and agreements on security and refugees”.
The new US team will “take a two-fold approach of maintaining and ideally improving the US relationship with Israel by deepening its integration into the region while resetting the US relationship with the Palestinian people and leadership,” the memo says.
It lays out current efforts towards that goal, including Mr Amr re-establishing diplomatic contact with the Palestinian Authority that was cut under Mr Trump who shut the US consulate in Jerusalem and kicked Palestinian diplomats out of the US.
The memo says that Mr Amr held “listening sessions with key counterparts at Israel’s [Ministry of Foreign Affairs] and Defence on the US-Israeli-Palestinian relationship” and that “they welcomed the restart of US-Palestinian relations”.
A key pillar of the new policy involves restarting assistance to the Palestinians, with plans for new Covid-19 aid that could be announced as soon as the end of this month.
“State and USAID are working towards a restart of US assistance to the Palestinians in late March or early April,” the memo says.
“We are planning a full range of economic, security and humanitarian assistance programmes, including through UN Relief and World Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA). Prior to the fuller launch, we plan to announce $15 million in Covid-related humanitarian assistance,” it says.
Mr Trump cut tens of millions in annual aid to UNRWA and other aid programmes as well as $60 million a year in funding for Palestinian security services.
UNRWA spokeswoman Tamara al-Rifai said the agency was hoping the US would resume funding and that this would encourage other countries to boost their support, which has dropped sharply in the past three years.
“UNRWA is very eager for a resumption of US financial but also political engagement with UNRWA,” Ms Al-Rifai told The National.
The document commits to engaging the international diplomatic community through the UN and the Quartet structures.
In an important gesture to the Palestinians, the document floats the idea of reopening a US mission in the Palestinian territories to signal a commitment to the two-state solution, but ideas and options are still being examined.
The document mentions a challenge in the coming Palestinian legislative elections planned for May 22 and presidential elections planned for July 31.
“The last Palestinian elections were held 15 years ago, and half of the young population has never had a chance to vote. But the implications of an election remain uncertain: the collapse of a power-sharing agreement after the prior elections led to the Hamas takeover of Gaza,” it says.
It mentions a request from the Palestinian Authority to the US to help “encourage an Israeli agreement to allow Palestinian voting once again in Jerusalem”.
“We are analysing the evolving situation and will propose a US posture together with the inter-agency.”
On the broader policy front, the new US team endorses some of Mr Trump’s steps in pushing for Arab-Israeli normalisation but promises to roll back other policies that have undermined the two-state solution.
On encouraging states to formally start relations with Israel, it says: “In these new normalised relationships, we will look for opportunities to support Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts and improve the quality of life for the Palestinian people.”
More specifically on the two-state solution, the document presents the idea to reduce incitement to violence by the Palestinians while at the same tackling Israeli violations related to settlement activity and military incursions.
It mentions “rolling back certain steps by the prior administration that bring into question our commitment or pose real barriers to a two-state solution, such as country of origin labelling”.
The Trump administration allowed products produced in illegal settlements to be labelled Israel as their country of origin.
It mentions talks as well “to obtain a Palestinian commitment to end payments to individuals imprisoned for acts of terrorism”.
The document reintroduces some of the themes that the George W Bush and the Barack Obama administrations pushed forward, such as the strengthening of Palestinian Institutions.
“This includes strengthening civil society, media watchdogs and other elements of the fourth estate, such as emphasising to the [Palestinian Authority] the need to protect civil society through the reductions of arrests of bloggers and dissidents’.
Joyce Karam – Washington correspondent, Washington DC