Biden says 'ground not ripe' for Israel-Palestine peace process in appearance with Palestinian President Abbas

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JERUSALEM – Conceding that the “ground is not ripe at the moment,” for restarting the peace process with Israel, President Joe Biden on Friday still tried to offer empathy – and some hope – to Palestinians.

The best way to do that, Biden said after announcing new humanitarian assistance, is to improve Palestinians’ day-to-day lives.

“The Palestinian people are hurting now. You can just feel it, your grief and frustration,” Biden said in a joint appearance in Bethlehem with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Nonetheless, Abbas said he stressed to Biden the importance of the “two-state solution” as a foundation for resolving the decades-long conflict. 

Abbas also said he’s looking forward to the U.S. reopening a consulate in East Jerusalem, something Biden has said he will do but that’s opposed by the Israeli government. 

Posters reading “Mr. President this is apartheid” were posted along part of Biden’s route to Bethlehem in protest of Israelis’ treatment of the Palestinians.

A billboard saying "Mr. President, this is apartheid" is posted by an Israeli human rights group in the West Bank town of Bethlehem ahead of the arrival of President Joe Biden in the region.

The latest

  • Restoring ties: Biden has focused during his presidency on restoring ties with the Palestinians that had been ruptured during the Trump administration. Creation of an independent Palestinian nation alongside Israel has been the North Star of a negotiated settlement . In recent years, various developments have diminished that prospect, including the internal political divisions in both camps.
  • Another setback: Some of the leverage Palestinians had was lost when Israel normalized relations with several Arab nations, a process started during the Trump administration and that the Biden administration is working to expand.
  • Biden’s approach: While the Trump administration considered the so-called Abraham Accords a substitute for progress on an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, the Biden administration hopes to leverage normalization as a bridge toward progress on the issue. 
  • Small steps: As a sign of progress, the Biden administration pointed to the recent phone call between Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, the first contact at that level in several years.
  • Saudi overtures: Biden heads to Saudi Arabia after his meetings in Israel on Friday. Ahead of his arrival, the Saudis opened their airspace to “all air carriers,” signaling the end of their longstanding ban on Israeli flights overflying their territory – a key step toward normalization between the two nations. The White House said the decision paves the way for “a more integrated, stable and secure Middle East region.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and U.S. President Joe Biden shake hands in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Friday, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

What’s happening

Bidenannounced several initiatives to benefit the Palestinian people, including more than $316 million in aid for various programs.

  • About $100 million will go to the East Jerusalem Hospitals Network to improve Palestinians’ access to health care services, such as oncology, dialysis, neo-natal intensive care and specialized maternity care.
  • Another $201 million will go to a United Nations relief program to deliver critical services to Palestinian refugees in the West Bank, Gaza, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria.
  • Additional initiatives include food security assistance, extending 4G digital access into the West Bank and Gaza, and restarting economic discussions between the Palestinians and Israelis.
Protesters wave Palestinian flags as Israeli police stand by, near the Augusta Victoria Hospital in east Jerusalem during the visit by U.S. President Joe Biden, Friday, July 15, 2022.

Why it matters

East Jerusalem is predominantly Arab and claimed by Palestinian leaders as the future capital of their independent state.

Since then-President Donald Trump recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in 2017, Israeli government officials have participated in visits to East Jerusalem by U.S. officials. But they didn’t accompany Biden Friday.

Biden hasn’t announced any progress toward his commitment of reopening a consulate in Jerusalem, which had served as a de facto embassy.

A photo of slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh is placed on a chair as journalists wait for remarks by U.S. President Joe Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas following their meeting at the West Bank town of Bethlehem, Friday, July 15, 2022. Arabic on photo reads "Shireen Abu Akleh voice of Palestine". (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Top takeaways

Biden’s attempts to improve conditions for the Palestinians within the confines of the staunch support the United States typically extends to Israel, its top Middle East ally, is a balancing act between stark geopolitical realities and his lofty promise to put human rights at the center of his foreign policy.

In Bethlehem, Biden called it “heart-wrenching” that so many Palestinians have lost their lives to violence, including a journalist, Palestinian American Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead in May while reporting on an Israeli military operation in the occupied West Bank. 

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