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Biden reaffirms support for a Palestinian state during West Bank visit

While the president has worked to improve relations between the U.S. and Palestinian leaders, he's been slow to reverse other measures put in place by Trump.

JERUSALEM — President Joe Biden reaffirmed his support for a two-state solution for Israelis and Palestinians during a visit to the West Bank on Friday where he sat down with Palestinian leaders frustrated over lingering Trump-era policies.

“The Palestinian people, as well as Israeli people, deserve a state of their own that is independent, sovereign, viable and contiguous,” he told reporters following a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. “Two states for two people, both of whom have deep and ancient roots in this land, living side by side in peace and security, both states fully respecting the equal rights of the other citizens.” 

Biden said he would work to "reinvigorate" the peace process, though earlier in the week he acknowledged that he didn’t see a two-state solution as something that would be achieved in the “near term.”

He announced a number of new initiatives around improving health care, expanding 4G digital access in Gaza and the occupied West Bank by the end of 2023, along with other measures aimed at spurring economic growth, assisting Palestinian refugees and reducing food insecurity. 

"The key to peace and security in our region begins with recognizing the state of Palestine and enabling the Palestinian people to obtain their legitimate rights," Abbas said following the meeting. 

“I take this opportunity, on the occasion of the visit of your excellency to the region, to say that I extend my hand to the leaders of Israel to make peace,” he said.

While Biden has improved relations between the United States and Palestinian leaders compared with where they stood under his predecessor, his administration has been slow to reverse several measures that Donald Trump put in place as president that Palestinians say directly affect their goal of becoming an independent state.  

The U.S. Embassy in Israel remains in Jerusalem, where Trump relocated it from Tel Aviv, but the U.S. consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem and offices for Palestinians in Washington remain closed, and Israeli settlements on the West Bank that Trump did not criticize have continued to grow. 

Administration officials indicated there wouldn’t be any change to those policies during this visit. White House national security adviser Jake Sullivan said the U.S. would like to reopen the consulate, and that discussions with the Israelis and the Palestinians around the move were ongoing.

“In terms of the actual tangibles in their hands, they’re going to likely be left with some statements, a visit and a handshake,” Shira Efron, director of policy research at the Israel Policy Forum, an American-based organization that supports a two-state solution, said of the Palestinians. 

Image: PALESTINIAN-ISRAEL-CONFLICT-US
A billboard in Bethlehem is part of a campaign organized by the Israeli rights group B'Tselem. Ahmad Gharabli / AFP - Getty Images

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

Biden administration officials have sought to emphasize the progress they have made in improving U.S.-Palestinian relations by restoring funding to the Palestinians that was cut off by Trump, and re-engaging in talks with Palestinian leaders after the Trump administration broke off nearly all communications.

“Given what the situation was when we walked into office — there was really no connection whatsoever, no discussions with the Palestinians, funding had been entirely severed, there was really no prospect of any political discussions of any kind,” the official said. “So we have worked to re-establish a lot of those connections.”

Shortly before Biden’s visit, Israel's caretaker 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 be adding 1,500 work permits for Palestinian workers and legalizing 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 that has been contested by the Israelis and the Palestinians, where he announced a proposed $100 million funding package to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, which provides specialized care to Palestinian patients. The funding is contingent on congressional approval, the White House said.

The hospital stop has been a source of tension among some Israelis who view the visit by an American president without any Israeli officials accompanying him as adding to Palestinian claims over that section of the city, which Palestinians hope will one day be the capital of an independent Palestinian state. Several Republican members of Congress had urged Biden not to make the visit for that reason. 

Following the hospital stop, Biden traveled to the West Bank to meet with Abbas in Bethlehem, where he also visited the Church of the Nativity before flying from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia — the first time a president has flown directly from Israel to Saudi Arabia, White House officials said. 

Biden administration officials say they have intentionally taken a more hands-off approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict than the prior administration. On the eve of Trump’s inauguration, he declared that his son-in-law, Jared Kushner, would make peace in the Middle East. Kushner eventually unveiled a Middle East peace plan that came about with no involvement from the Palestinians and was never acted upon. 

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Palestinian security officers stand guard near the Church of the Nativity, in Bethlehem on Friday.Mahmoud Illean / AP

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

But Biden has embraced one key move by the Trump administration: the Abraham Accords that normalized relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. Biden is looking to replicate the model 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 visit will be the death of Palestinian American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, for which human rights and journalist advocacy groups have pushed for Biden to hold Israel accountable. The U.S. concluded this month that the Al Jazeera journalist was most likely killed by gunfire from Israeli military positions, but U.S. investigators have said they couldn’t reach a definitive conclusion about the origins of the bullet that killed her, the Department of State said. 

During a press event where Biden and Abbas spoke, one of the seats among the Palestinian journalists had a large placard of Abu Akleh that read “Shireen Abu Akleh: The Voice of Palestine.”

Investigations by the United Nations and independent Western media organizations found that Israeli fire led to her death. 

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

“The United States will continue to insist on the full and transparent accounting of her death," Biden said Friday. "And we will continue to stand up for media freedom everywhere in the world."