U.S. President Joe Biden devoted the last few hours of his time in the Holy Land to Palestinians with a stop at a Christian hospital in Jerusalem and then a trip to Bethlehem where he visited the Church of the Nativity and met with Palestinian officials.
These stops – one of which included a pledge of $100 million to supplement Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem – sent a signal to Christians that his administration is concerned with their plight.
“I am proud that the United States is providing this support, and I hope that the amount will lead to the development of the health sector and the improvement of care provided to the Palestinian people,” Biden added.
In Bethlehem, Biden toured the Church of the Nativity in Manger Square, the location where tradition says Jesus was born. He met with priests of different denominations inside the church and knelt in one of the pews for a time of prayer.
The choice of the church visit was a boon to the Christian minority in the Palestinian territories who have suffered from a significant population loss in the past few decades.
Biden also met with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, offering hope that he is intent on working out a two-state solution.
“Even if the ground is not right at this moment to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on trying to bring the Palestinians, Israelis and both sides closer together,” he said.
But Palestinians did not have high expectations to begin with and Biden’s visit followed two days of highly positive meetings with Israeli leaders. While he expressed his staunch support for a two-state solution, Biden also declared Jerusalem the unquestioned capital of Israel.
Abbas was blunt.
“Isn’t it time for this occupation to end?” Abbas asked after the meeting. “The opportunity for a two-state solution on the 1967 borders may be available today, and it may not remain for a long time.”
Abbas’ list of demands from Biden included U.S. removal of the Palestine Liberation Organization from a U.S. list of terrorist groups and the reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem and a Palestinian diplomatic mission in D.C.
The Palestinian leader also demanded that the U.S. hold Israel accountable in the death of al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during fighting between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen in May.
The White House issued a readout of the meeting. It said Biden “reiterated the U.S. position that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,” however many believe that his visit to East Jerusalem without Israeli officials – and without an Israeli flag on his motorcade – was a tacit acknowledgement of Palestinian claims to that section of the city as a capital of a future Palestinian state.
After these meetings, Biden headed for Ben-Gurion International Airport to depart for Saudi Arabia, the second and final leg of his trip. His historic flight from Israeli air space and directly into the kingdom is seen as a step toward normalization of ties between Saudi Arabia and Israel. Former U.S. President Donald Trump traveled from Saudi to Israel directly also marking a first.
On Friday, Saudi Arabia announced it would open its airspace to “all air carriers.” Flights originating in or heading to Israel had been banned until the Abraham Accords began melting the ice, signaling the end of its longstanding ban on Israeli flights overflying its territory — a key step toward normalization between the two nations as Biden visits the region.
The Saudi General Authority of Civil Aviation made the announcement on Twitter.