Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with U.S. President Joe Biden on Friday in Bethlehem in the West Bank. Photo by Mohamad Torokman/EPA-EFE
July 15 (BP) — U.S. President Joe Biden traveled to the West Bank on Friday and met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas after departing Israel on his four-day visit to the Middle East.
Biden met with Abbas, leader of the Palestinian Authority since 2005, after visiting a hospital in East Jerusalem that treats a large number of Palestinians and pledging millions of dollars in funding.
Before the two leaders met at Abbas’ Muqataa Presidential Compound in Bethlehem in the West Bank, the White House proposed new initiatives to improve healthcare in the region and expand digital access for Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank.
“Every person has the right to be treated with dignity,” Biden said after the meeting in a joint news conference with Abbas. “The Palestinian people are hurting now. You can just feel it, your grief and frustration. We will never give up on peace.”
Biden again pledged U.S. support for a two-state solution to give Palestinians their own country. By and large, most Palestinians have rejected two-state proposals.
On Friday, Biden — who met with Abbas in 2016 when he was U.S. vice president — said that he was one of the earliest supporters of the two-state proposal.
The American president added that said Jerusalem must be a city for “all of its citizens,” including Muslims, Christians and members of the Jewish faith — and said the best way to “feed the flame of hope” is to show that things will get better.
Biden also emphasized that he has approved resuming about $300 million in U.S. aid to Palestinians, funding that was largely cut off by former President Donald Trump.
Biden, however, added that the “ground is not ripe” for Israelis and Palestinians to resume peace talks toward a solution to their decades-old conflict. The remark was likely to disappoint Palestinians who’d hoped that Biden and the United States would press Israel to resume the talks, especially now that former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is out of power.
“Even if the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on trying to bring Palestinians and Israelis and both sides closer together,” Biden said.
“There must be a political horizon that the Palestinian people can actually see or at least feel. We cannot allow the hopelessness to steal away the future.”
“Biden reiterated the importance of fostering a political horizon, and noted the United States stands ready to work with Israelis, Palestinians, and regional stakeholders toward that goal,” the White House added in a readout of Biden’s bilateral meeting with Abbas.
“As he had relayed to Israeli leaders, President Biden conveyed to President Abbas that in order to create the conditions for negotiations, it was important for both parties to avoid unilateral measures.”
In his comments, Abbas called for a return to the 1967 borders and for an end to Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank — so that it can name East Jerusalem as its capital.
“Only then will Israel be accepted and live in peace, security and good neighborhood with the good people and countries of the region based on the Arab peace initiative,” Abbas said. “I take this opportunity on the occasion to say that I extend my hand to leaders of Israel to make peace.”
During the conference, Biden also called for those responsible for killing Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh to be brought to justice. She died in May while reporting in the West Bank.
U.S. and United Nations investigators have both concluded that Israeli forces were responsible for Abu Akleh’s death.
Biden called the journalist’s killing “a tremendous loss” and said the United States supports a full accounting and stands up for freedom of the press.
After Biden spent the first two days of the trip in Israel, Palestinians had hoped that Biden would change the landscape of U.S.-Palestinian relations with regard to security, economic growth, hunger and more support for refugees — things that had all greatly deteriorated under Trump.
In addition to suspending U.S. aid for Palestinians, Trump also drew anger when he moved the U.S. Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to the contested city of Jerusalem and formally recognized it as the Israeli capital — a move that Biden said he supported in his visit with Abbas Friday.
The U.S. consulate for Palestinians has not reopened under Biden and Israel has continued to expand its settlements in the divided West Bank.
After his meeting with Abbas, Biden was scheduled to visit Bethlehem’s Church of the Nativity before departing for Saudi Arabia — a stop on the Middle East trip that’s drawn significant criticism for Biden in the United States.
Later Friday, Biden was scheduled to meet first with King Salman at the Al Salam Royal Palace in Jeddah and later with Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman and other ministers of the government.
Biden has been criticized for making Saudi Arabia part of his trip to the Middle East, because the crown prince is believed by Western intelligence to be directly responsible for the killing of another journalist — Jamal Khashoggi — in Turkey in 2018.
Khashoggi, a dissident Saudi writer and contributor for The Washington Post, was often critical of Saudi royal leadership. He was killed — and intelligence agencies believe he was dismembered — after he visited a Saudi consulate in Istanbul to obtain paperwork for his planned marriage. His remains have never been found.
While running for president in 2020, Biden said that he would treat Saudi leaders — especially Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman — as “pariahs.”
During his time in Israel on Thursday, Biden defended his decision to go to Saudi Arabia, emphasizing that failing to do so would be counterproductive and leave a leadership “vacuum” that might be filled by Russia and China.
“My views on Khashoggi have been absolutely, positively clear and I have never been quiet about talking about human rights,” he said. “The reason I’m going to Saudi Arabia is to promote U.S. interests in a way that I think we have an opportunity to reassert our influence in the Middle East.”
While he’s in Saudi Arabia, Biden on Saturday will participate in a summit of the Gulf Cooperation Council with leaders from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Oman, UAE, Bahrain, Qatar, Iraq, Jordan and Egypt before he returns to the United States.
Biden also announced before leaving Israel on Friday that Saudi Arabia has agreed to allow flights from Israel. He said he hopes the decision will “help build momentum toward Israel’s further integration into the region.”