U.S. President Joe Biden has said repeatedly that he wants to improve American ties with the Palestinians, but his visit to Israel this week is expected to leave them disappointed.
The president arrives in the country on Wednesday afternoon, will visit Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial and help kick-off the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem. He will tour strategic military posts and meet with the Israeli prime minister, president, opposition leader and other top officials.
He will not travel to Ramallah.
The decision to visit Bethlehem and not Ramallah is tied both to political and security reasons, according to Arab-Israeli analyst Khaled Abu Toameh.
“Ramallah is associated with Palestinian nationalism,” Abu Toameh said. “The headquarters of the Palestinian Authority is located there. It is not like Bethlehem, which is the birthplace of Jesus.”
Moreover, if Biden would go to the mukata (Palestinian headquaters), he would likely be asked to lay a wreath on the grave of former Palestinian President Yasser Arafat, something which Abu Toameh said would likely be too much for his conservative Democratic voters and would alienate pro-Israel Evangelical Christians and others around the world.
“Arafat is still seen by many as an arch terrorist and I am not sure Biden wants to be seen paying tribute to him – it would be a symbolic victory for the Palestinians if Biden went to Arafat’s grave but damaging for the U.S. president,” Abu Toameh added.
Finally, from a security perspective, it would have been difficult to arrange proper security in Ramallah with its small and crowded streets.
The result is that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will be seen as coming to meet Biden and not the other way around.
The presidents will meet for less than an hour, making the encounter more of a “by-the-way” meeting rather than a serious diplomatic discussion, according to Dimitri Diliani, head of the Palestinian National Christian Coalition and a peace activist.
“What is it that the PA has done diplomatically or politically to align its interests with the U.S. that the American president would exert an effort?” Diliani asked. “They have done nothing and I don’t blame him.”
The Palestinians set the bar high for Biden when he took office, hoping that he would change their reality, but in the last 18 months, the president has paid a lot of lip service and taken little action.
It is expected this visit will be no different.
FIVE PALESTINIAN REQUESTS OF BIDEN
Abu Toameh said the Palestinians plan to push five key issues with the president.
First, they want Biden to help bring about a resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians.
This despite the fact that the majority of Jewish (85%) and Arab (64%) citizens do not believe in Biden’s ability to bring about a breakthrough with regard to negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, according to a poll released Monday by the Israel Democracy Institute.
Second, they want Biden to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which has symbolic significance for the Palestinians.
“It is not that the Palestinians are going to line up and stand outside the U.S. consulate tomorrow morning and apply for visas,” Abu Toameh quipped. “For them, it would be a sign that the U.S. does not recognize Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel, undoing some of what former U.S. President Donald Trump did in the city.”
Third, they want the removal of the PLO from the U.S. terrorist list and the reopening of the PLO diplomatic mission in Washington – again symbolic. The mission was seen by the Palestinians as a de facto embassy in the U.S. and as legitimizing them and their rights in the eyes of the U.S. public.
Fourth, a resumption of financial aid to the Palestinian Authority.
Biden almost immediately restored some aid to the Palestinians after taking office in January 2021. On this visit, he is expected to announce an additional $100 million to Palestinian hospitals in Jerusalem.
However, resumption of aid to the PA budget is unlikely, explained Abu Toameh, because of the Taylor Force Act, which states that the U.S. cannot fund the PA if it gives money to terrorists and their families.
Finally, they want the Biden administration to increase its pressure on Israel to refrain from unilateral actions like settlement construction, evacuating families from their illegally built homes or certain security measures like home demolitions.
Even if Biden makes the right statements and infuses new funds into the territories, the high ceiling set forward by the PA is unlikely to be realized.
“The PA said that they expect announcements about a two-state solution, halting all settlement activity, ensuring the status-quo at Muslim and Christian holy sites in Jerusalem and more. Realistically, these items need a long time and the work of specialty teams and can barely be discussed, let alone agreements made and announced by the president in a conversation of less than an hour,” Diliani said. “These unrealistic expectations show just how detached our [Palestinian] leadership is from reality.
In protest of Biden’s visit, a group of U.S. citizens with Palestinian-American dual nationality are holding a press conference on Wednesday ahead of the visit to “highlight how Israeli violations of Palestinian rights are enabled by U.S. governments silence even when it comes to the rights of U.S citizens from Palestinian descent.”
The event is being held in Ramallah and will include several testimonies and a statement by Palestinian Americans.
In addition, a group of Palestinians will hold a protest in Ramallah on Thursday at 6 p.m., around the time Biden is in Bethlehem, in rejection of what they described as “Biden’s humiliating policies toward the Palestinian issue,” Abu Toameh reported.
Diliani said that while he thinks Biden should give more respect to Abbas, the Palestinian people understand that they cannot achieve their goals under his leadership.
A recent poll showed that 79% of Palestinians want Abbas to leave office, Diliani said.
Abbas is an “86-year-old, heavy-smoking, sick man,” he said. Though he noted that Abbas is unlikely to be ousted by the Israelis, Americans or his own people. “If you think about the Biden visit, you see that the only hope is post-Abbas.
“Basically, I think he is a sinking ship and our job now is to keep our people away from that sinking ship so we don’t sink with him.”