US President Joe Biden’s First Visit to the Middle East: Palestinian Reactions

Biden reiterated he is still in favor of a two-state solution, even if it would not become reality in the near future. He neither made political commitments, nor apparently brought up new concrete visions how to mediate the conflict. Instead, he promised additional financial support to the Palestinians. After Biden's visit, the Palestinians once again have the impression that the US has written them off.

By Dr. Riham Halaseh and Dorthe Siegmund

Biden Visit to Jerusalem

US President Joe Biden kicked off his first presidential trip to the Middle East on July 13th 2022, with an initial stop in Israel and occupied Palestine, before travelling to Saudi Arabia for a regional summit, where he met with leaders from Jordan, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, Qatar, and Iraq. Following two days of high-level meetings with Israeli officials, Biden reaffirmed his commitment to Israel's security. To that end, Biden and Israel's Prime Minister Yair Lapid signed a statement in Jerusalem, whereby the United States pledges its “commitment never to allow Iran to acquire a nuclear weapon”. During his joint press conference with Lapid, Biden considered the two-state solution the best option for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and vowed that the United States would create more stability because “It’s critical […] for all the peoples of the region".

The following day, Biden met with the Palestinian leadership in Bethlehem, before attending a joint press conference with President Mahmoud Abbas. In the press conference, Abbas stressed that the recognition of the Palestinian state on the 1967 borders with East Jerusalem as its capital, is the key to regional peace and security. He underlined the importance of restoring the foundations of the peace process based on the United Nations resolutions and the two-state solution, enabling the Palestinian people to obtain their legitimate rights in accordance with international resolutions, and ending all permanent status issues, including the Palestinian refugee issue. Abbas mentioned his full readiness to cooperate with the US administration to remove all obstacles to strong bilateral relations between both sides and renewed the call to Biden to fulfill his promises to reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem, remove the Palestinian Liberation Organization (PLO) from the US terrorist list, and reopen the PLO representation office in Washington. Abbas emphasized the need to end Israeli unilateral steps that undermine the two-state solution and violate international law, such as forced displacement of Palestinians, house demolitions, settlement activity and daily killings. He added that halting these unilateral measures is required to create conditions for a return to the political track, and to resolve permanent status issues, in accordance with international resolutions, the Arab Peace Initiative and signed agreements. Some Palestinian observers criticized Mahmoud Abbas’ speech as repeating the same rhetoric.

During his speech, Biden said that the Palestinians deserve a state of their own that is independent, sovereign, viable and contiguous. Despite reiterating his administration’s commitment to the two-state solution along the 1967 borders with mutually agreed upon land swaps, as the best way to achieve security, prosperity, freedom and democracy for Palestinians and Israelis, Biden admitted that the two-state solution seems far away. He expressed his administration’s commitment to resuming the negotiations, adding, There must be a political horizon that the Palestinian people can actually see or at least feel”. While not offering any details how this political horizon could look like, and focusing on economic measures, Biden emphasized his administration’s efforts to improve the daily life of Palestinians; adding that he restored the more that 500 million US-Dollars in humanitarian aid to Palestinians since coming to office in 2021. The US government also plans to provide additional 200 million US-Dollars to the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA).  Previously, Donald Trump had largely cut off financial support to the Palestinians. Since Biden took office, the money has started flowing again. In addition, Biden also provided additional 100 million US-Dollars for financial assistance of the six clinics that provide highly important medical aid for Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Biden also unveiled a plan to spur Palestinian economic growth by introducing infrastructure for 4G internet across the West Bank and the Gaza Strip by the end of 2023, increase the supply of renewable energy, and improve freedom of movement of people and goods. He called for the freedom of worship in East Jerusalem and preserving the status quo at the holy sites in Jerusalem under Jordan’s custodianship.

It is worth mentioning that ahead of Biden’s visit, Israel’s Prime Minister Yair Lapid called Mahmoud Abbas to discuss security measures during Biden’s visit, although the Israeli coalition agreement clearly stated that no peace talks were to take place with the Palestinians. Following American pressure, and on the eve of the trip, Israel announced a series of “confidence-building” measures between the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Israel. According to the Israeli military’s liaison to the Palestinians, these steps were approved by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz, following a meeting with Abbas, and include an additional 1,500 work permits for workers from the Gaza Strip, and legalizing the status of 5,500 undocumented Palestinians and foreigners living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

Palestinian Perspectives

The June 2022 statement by the White House in advance of the visit had already left the Palestinians with low expectations. The statement said that Biden was coming to “reinforce the United States’ iron-clad commitment to Israel’s security and prosperity”. It added that Biden would “consult with the Palestinian Authority and to reiterate his strong support for a two-state solution, with equal measures of security, freedom, and opportunity for the Palestinian people”. Palestinian political factions, national committees, civil society organizations and activists voiced their rejection of the visit and the US Middle East policy and called for protests across occupied Palestine. Thousands of Palestinians participated in rallies in Ramallah, Gaza, East Jerusalem, Nablus and Bethlehem in rejection of the American position and the Trump peace plan, officially titled "Peace to Prosperity: A Vision to Improve the Lives of the Palestinian and Israeli People", the so-called “deal of the century”. In the context of the normalization agreements between Israel and some Arab states, namely the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan, Palestinian Human Rights NGOs underline again the missing human rights aspects and consider them as economic agreements. From their perspective, especially international observers would often misinterpret these as peace agreements.

While several officials from the PA viewed the results of the trip positively and considered the current US administration’s position an advanced step compared to that of to its predecessors that must be built on, Palestinian political factions and figures saw the trip as a new low in US dealings with the Palestinian cause. In a press statement, Hamas viewed the visit as a practical embodiment of the absolute American support for the occupation and a blatant bias to it, and constitutes a cover for its crimes against the Palestinians. It warned of the danger of the agendas of this visit, mainly the attempts to integrate Israel in the region and expand normalization. It called on the US administration to stop undermining the inalienable rights of the Palestinian people and to stop siding with the occupation, which disregards all international covenants and relevant Security Council resolutions. Moreover, Hamas called on the PA to stop betting on the American position and to return to people’s choice in continuous resistance. Human rights organizations in the Gaza Strip criticized Biden’s lack of attention to the difficult life situation in the Gaza Strip. Palestinian political analysts, such as Ramallah-based Ali Jarbawi, noted that Biden's visit to the West Bank was merely part of a diplomatic procedure, because he cannot come to Israel without meeting the Palestinian leadership. Although the Biden administration expressed commitment to pursue “equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and democracy” for Israelis and Palestinians, this visit has less to do with the political or national rights of the Palestinian people, as Biden has yet to follow through on one of his key promises: reopening the US consulate in East Jerusalem, some observers noted.

New US Administration… New Political Horizon?

For many Palestinians, it was clear that they would not gain anything from Biden's visit. Under former US president Donald Trump, the US administration recognized all of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital relocating its embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and shutting the US consulate to Palestinians in Jerusalem. It also closed down the Palestinian Representative Office in Washington, DC, cut financial support to the PA and UNRWA, and recognized Israeli sovereignty over the 1967-occupied Syrian Golan Heights. In his presidential campaign in 2020, Biden pledged to purse a foreign policy that would be centered on human rights. He promised to act immediately to reopen the US consulate in East Jerusalem, and work to reopen the PLO mission in Washington, to restore economic and humanitarian assistance to the Palestinian people, including assistance to UNRWA, and to address the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Gaza. To date, Biden failed to reverse much of his predecessor’s decisions and managed only to partially restore financial aid to the PA and UNRWA. Biden made it clear he had no plans to reverse Trump’s controversial move of recognizing Jerusalem as Israel's capital, which infuriated Palestinians, as they see East Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state.

Other than giving pledges for humanitarian and financial support in the framework of the so-called “economic peace”, no political steps were announced or pushed. Against this background, many Palestinians see Biden’s visit as a missed opportunity.