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Biden’s Mideast Message: Good News for Israel, Small Steps for Palestinians

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JERUSALEM — President Biden had contrasting messages for Israelis and Palestinians on Friday before departing Israel for Saudi Arabia, announcing latest steps toward Israeli integration throughout the Middle East while cautioning Palestinians that now was not the time for brand spanking new peace talks to finish the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Biden began the day by announcing that Saudi Arabia, essentially the most powerful Arab country, would allow direct flights to and from Israel. After years of clandestine discussions behind the scenes between Saudi Arabia and Israel, that agreement was the primary overt step by the Saudis to create a proper relationship.

Hailed by Mr. Biden as “historic,” it was the newest sign of Israel’s growing acceptance amongst Arab leaders after years of regional isolation, as fears of a nuclear Iran — shared by each Israel and a number of other Sunni Arab leaders — have superseded Arab solidarity with the Palestinians.

For the Palestinians, Mr. Biden offered sympathy and funding, but few long-term prospects. On a temporary visit to the West Bank, he announced greater than $300 million for Palestinian hospitals and refugees, a few of it subject to congressional approval. And he reported that Israel had agreed to present the Palestinians access to 4G web, a call not yet confirmed by Israel.

He also restated his support for a future Palestinian state, with a capital in a minimum of a part of Jerusalem, and said that Israel’s increased acceptance throughout the Arab world may lead to latest momentum for the dormant peace process.

But Mr. Biden warned that “the bottom isn’t ripe at this moment to restart negotiations,” and announced no long-term program to revive them, beyond the hope that the changing alliances of the Middle East might sooner or later allow for a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“On this moment, when Israel is improving relations with its neighbors throughout the region, we will harness that very same momentum to reinvigorate the peace process between the Palestinian people and the Israelis,” Mr. Biden said, referring each to the brand new Saudi flight arrangements and a set of earlier agreements between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

It was a juxtaposition that highlighted the central dichotomy of his 49-hour visit to Israel and the West Bank.

To Israelis, it was a source of celebration — the arrival of a self-declared Zionist, certainly one of its oldest and staunchest friends, and now a standard-bearer for Israel’s integration throughout the Middle East.

“A visit that moved our entire country,” summarized Yair Lapid, Israel’s interim prime minister, as Mr. Biden departed for Saudi Arabia.

To Palestinians, parts of the visit could have been welcome: Mr. Biden brought funding, attention and reassurance that the U.S. still supports the concept of Palestinian sovereignty.

Nevertheless it was also a reminder that Palestinian aspirations will not be a priority for the Biden administration. Mr. Biden spent just three hours within the West Bank, against 46 in Israel. And he disillusioned Palestinians by avoiding criticism of Israel, defusing expectations of a renewed American-led peace process and maintaining several Trump administration decisions widely criticized by Palestinians.

The U.S. president is on a four-day trip to Israel and Saudi Arabia, after branding the latter country a “pariah” state following the brutal assassination of Jamal Khashoggi, a Saudi Arabian journalist.

“Mr. President,” said Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, at a joint press briefing with Mr. Biden in Bethlehem. “Isn’t it time for this occupation to finish?”

Some praised Mr. Biden’s decision to revive American funding for a Palestinian network of hospitals, with one hospital director, Fadi Atrush, saying that the president was “bringing hope to 1000’s of Palestinian patients.”

But others portrayed the guarantees of more aid as merely short-term measures that did little to deal with the more fundamental problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A nurse whose hospital will profit from Mr. Biden’s funding pledge thanked him for the donation but said that Palestinians needed greater than money.

“We want more justice, we’d like more dignity,” she called to him after he announced the funding on the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem.

Updated 

July 15, 2022, 4:00 p.m. ET

There was frustration, too, on the news of one other thaw in relations between Israel and the Arab world.

For years, most Arab leaders said they’d not recognize Israel before the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In 2002, Saudi Arabia itself spearheaded a peace proposal based on that premise — and Mr. Abbas, in his meeting his Mr. Biden, tried to channel that very same idea.

“The important thing to peace and security in our region begins with recognizing the state of Palestine,” Mr. Abbas said.

But Mr. Biden’s own words and actions appeared to undermine the thought.

Inside hours, Mr. Biden was on his approach to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was certainly one of the primary few overt direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia — the newest indication of how Israel is gaining regional acceptance as security concerns and trade ambitions tackle greater importance for some Arab leaders than an instantaneous resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It’s a dark time basically for Palestinians, with their leadership divided between the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that wrested control of Gaza from the authority in 2007. Most Palestinians see little hope of reconciliation, recent polling shows.

In Gaza, a blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt is in its fifteenth 12 months. One in 4 Palestinians was unemployed in 2021. Seven in 10 say they consider that a Palestinian state is not any longer feasible due to the expansion of Israeli settlements within the West Bank, in line with a June poll. Nearly 80 percent want the resignation of Mr. Abbas, who last faced an election in 2005, and the overwhelming majority see each the authority and Hamas as corrupt.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Biden offered gentle criticism of the Palestinian leadership. “The Palestinian Authority has vital work to do as well, if you happen to don’t mind my saying,” Mr. Biden said. “Now’s the time to strengthen Palestinian institutions to enhance governance, transparency and accountability.”

But many Palestinians have criticisms of their very own for the Biden administration, with 65 percent opposing dialogue between their leadership and the US.

Mr. Biden has not formally reversed a Trump administration decision to legitimize Israeli settlements within the West Bank, which many of the world considers illegal. Following Israeli pressure, he has not reopened the U.S. consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the Palestinian mission in Washington, each of which were shuttered under Mr. Trump.

The Biden administration also angered Palestinians by recently declining to push Israel to launch a criminal investigation into the killing in May of a Palestinian American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, wherein multiple investigations, including one by The Recent York Times, found that the bullets had come from the placement of an Israeli Army unit that knew journalists were in the realm.

Palestinians demonstrated against Mr. Biden on Friday in each Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and a few Palestinians criticized Mr. Abbas for meeting with him.

“Palestinians consider the U.S. as a partner within the occupation, whether by funding it or by supporting Israel politically,” said Suhaib Zahda, 39, a political activist within the West Bank city of Nablus.

Mr. Biden said he empathized with Palestinian frustrations. “The Palestinian persons are hurting now — you’ll be able to just feel it,” he said on Friday, adding that the experience of the Palestinians reminded him of his own Irish heritage and the struggles of the Irish under colonial British rule.

The president quoted a verse from “The Cure of Troy,” a poem by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney that he often cites:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can stand up,
And hope and history rhyme

Mr. Biden then added that he hoped “we’re reaching certainly one of those moments where hope and history rhyme.”

He didn’t elaborate on how or why.

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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