Joe Biden was greeted by small groups of protesters and billboards decrying the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories as apartheid during his brief visits to East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, signs of disappointment at the sidelining of their quest for statehood during the president’s tour of the Middle East.
The president visited Augusta Victoria hospital in East Jerusalem on Friday morning, where he promised $300m (£250m) in assistance for the Palestinians, before travelling in a convoy to Bethlehem to meet the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and visit the Church of the Nativity.
Biden will return to Israel, and on Friday afternoon Air Force One will make a first direct flight from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia, where the president’s goal is to convince Gulf hydrocarbon producers to increase supply to calm global oil markets shaken by the war in Ukraine, as well as build up Israel’s nascent political ties with Arab nations, which share a common foe in Iran.
“Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and dignity,” he said in a speech at the hospital complex, which serves Palestinians.
“Access to healthcare, when you need it, is essential to living a life of dignity for all of us.”
One-third of the announced funding will need approval from Congress, while the remaining $200m will go to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and other programmes.
Monetary pledges, however, have done little to assuage Palestinian scepticism that the US no longer has an appetite for their cause: Biden said this week that he does not think peace is possible “in the near term”.
He has also not fulfilled a promise to reopen a US mission in East Jerusalem closed by Donald Trump, who broke with decades of diplomatic convention in recognising the divided city as Israel’s capital. Trump also heavily favoured Israel’s right wing, which opposes Palestinian statehood.
Before Biden’s meeting with Abbas, the Palestinian public and leadership alike have expressed anger at the new administration’s failure to curb either Israeli settlement building or settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank despite a marked change of rhetoric after Trump’s term in office.
A few dozen protesters outside the Augusta Victoria carried Palestinian flags and posters bearing the image of Shireen Abu Aqleh, the Palestinian-American journalist probably killed by Israeli fire two months ago, which the US has concluded was an accident.
The Israeli rights group B’Tselem put up billboards and digital screens in Bethlehem which read “Mr President, this is apartheid” – a claim made by several major human rights organisations over the last year, but which Israel rejects as a threat to its existence.
When Biden finished speaking at the hospital, a woman who identified herself as a paediatric nurse thanked him for the financial assistance but said: “We need more justice, more dignity,” while Palestinian journalists waiting to cover Biden’s press conference in Bethlehem wore black T-shirts reading: “Justice for Shireen”.
Although the president reaffirmed the US’s support for a two-state solution to the conflict during his three-day trip to Israel and the territories, the visit largely focused on the threat posed to Israel and its new Arab allies by Iran’s growing military capabilities.
A far-reaching communique called the “Jerusalem declaration”, signed by Biden and Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid, on Wednesday, offered little to the Palestinians other than a pledge from Israel to improve the economic conditions and quality of life for the 5 million people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The last round of serious talks aimed at ending the 55-year-old military occupation broke down more than a decade ago, and Lapid, who became interim leader after Israel’s short-lived coalition government collapsed last month, lacks a mandate to restart peace negotiations. Polling suggests that Israel could elect its most right-wing government to date in elections scheduled for 1 November, making it even less likely the peace process will be a priority for Israel.
Palestinian leaders also fear being further undermined by the Abraham accords, normalisation agreements between Israel with several Arab nations facilitated by the Trump administration despite the continuing occupation.
Biden will lobby for fully integrating Israel into the emerging regional defence architecture against Iran during his trip to the Saudi city of Jeddah, including a gradual warming of ties between the majority Jewish state and the regional geopolitical heavyweight Saudi Arabia, which does not formally recognise Israel’s existence.
In a small sign of the tentative new relationship, before Biden’s flight on Friday Saudi Arabia announced “the decision to open the kingdom’s airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements for overflying”, signalling the end of a longstanding ban on Israeli flights over its territory.
Biden has defended his decision to re-engage with Saudi Arabia after branding the kingdom a “global pariah” over the murder of the journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Speaking on Thursday, the president said he will not avoid human rights issues on the final leg of his Middle East tour, despite refusing to commit to mentioning the murder when he meets the kingdom’s crown prince.
July 15, 2022 at 05:06PM Bethan McKernan in Jerusalem