BETHLEHEM, West Bank ( Associated Press) — During a visit to the Israeli-occupied West Bank on Friday, President Joe Biden offered hope-hungry Palestinians compassion and financial assistance, but also forcefully acknowledged that “the ground is not ripe” for further attempts to achieve an elusive peace.
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Political uncertainty in Israel, which is holding another round of elections in November, and weak Palestinian Authority leadership have dimmed any chance of restarting negotiations that failed more than a decade ago.
The stalemate has left millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule. Biden said that “they deserve a state of their own that is independent, sovereign, viable and contiguous. Two states for two peoples, both with deep and ancient roots in this land, who live together in peace and security”.
Although such a goal “may seem so far away,” he said he would not abandon the dormant peace process.
“Even if the ground is not ripe right now to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on bringing the Palestinians and Israelis, both sides, closer together,” Biden said during a joint appearance with the Authority’s chairman. Palestine. Mahmoud Abbas.
Biden offered more than $300 million for the Palestinians on Friday, including $201 million for a United Nations agency that helps refugees and a $100 million proposal for hospitals. The financing of health care requires the approval of Congress.
Israel has also pledged to upgrade wireless networks in the West Bank and Gaza, as part of a broader effort to improve economic conditions.
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However, Biden did not criticize Israel for expanding settlements, some of which resemble sprawling suburbs, on occupied territory that the Palestinians want for a future state. He also did not mention his unfulfilled commitment to reopen a US consulate in east Jerusalem, which served as a de facto embassy for the Palestinians before President Donald Trump closed it three years ago.
Abbas, in his own remarks, said that “the key to peace” in the region “begins with ending the Israeli occupation of our land,” and said that Israel “cannot continue to act as a state above the law.” ”.
He also mentioned the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh and said her killers “must be held accountable.”
Abu Akleh was shot during an Israeli military incursion into the West Bank in May, and US officials say she was likely killed by Israeli troops unintentionally. However, they did not say how they came to that conclusion, and the result angered many Palestinians, including her family, who accuse the United States of trying to help Israel evade responsibility.
Biden said the United States “will continue to insist on a full and transparent account of his death and will continue to defend press freedom around the world.”
He called his death “a huge loss to the essential work of sharing the story of the Palestinian people with the world.”
Palestinian journalists wore black T-shirts with Abu Akleh’s picture on them and placed a poster of her on an empty chair in the room where the leaders spoke.
Biden’s trip to the West Bank was met with skepticism and bitterness among Palestinians who believe he has taken too few steps to revive peace talks, especially after Trump sidelined them while heavily favoring Israel.
Israel’s outgoing government has taken steps to improve economic conditions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But Yair Lapid, the 58-year-old caretaker prime minister, has no mandate to enter into negotiations. Elections on November 1 could also bring to power a right-wing government that opposes the Palestinian state.
Meanwhile, Abbas, 86, whose Palestinian Authority administers parts of the occupied West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security, is more representative of the status quo than of Palestinian aspirations.
His Fatah party lost an election and control of Gaza to the Islamic militant group Hamas more than 15 years ago. He called off the first national elections since last year, blaming Israel, as Fatah appeared headed for another crushing defeat. Polls over the past year have consistently found that nearly 80 percent of Palestinians want him to step down.
On Friday, Hamas criticized Abbas for meeting with Biden, calling the United States a “partner in aggression against our people.”
Palestinian leaders fear being further undermined by the Abraham Accords, a diplomatic vehicle for Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel despite the ongoing occupation. Biden, who traveled to Saudi Arabia later on Friday to attend a summit of Arab leaders, hopes to expand on that process, which began with Trump.
Hours before Biden became the first American leader to fly directly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, the kingdom’s General Civil Aviation Authority signaled the end of its strict limits on Israeli flights over its territory. Biden called the decision “an important step toward building a more integrated and stable Middle East region.”
It was not the first presidential flight directly between Israel and the kingdom. President George W. Bush flew from Tel Aviv directly to Riyadh in 2008, and President Donald Trump flew from Saudi Arabia directly to Israel in 2017, but the White House nonetheless called it “historic.”
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During his appearance with Abbas, Biden said he hopes the Abraham Accords can also benefit the Palestinians.
“I think that at this time when Israel is improving relations with its neighbors throughout the region, we can use that same momentum to reinvigorate the peace process between the Palestinian people and the Israelis,” he said.
Apart from his visit to the West Bank, however, there was little mention of Palestinians during Biden’s two days in Israel, which he praised as a democracy that shares American values. In a press conference with Biden, Lapid evoked the US civil rights movement to portray Israel as a bastion of freedom.
It all reeked of hypocrisy for the Palestinians, who have endured 55 years of military occupation with no end in sight.
“The idea of shared values really turns my stomach,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and political analyst. “I don’t think Israeli values are something people should strive for.”
Both Biden and Lapid said they support an eventual two-state solution, but their approach, often referred to as “economic peace” because of its focus on financial assistance and business development, has limitations.
“Mr. Biden is trying to marginalize the Palestinian problem,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a veteran Palestinian activist. “If you don’t allow Palestinians to have their rights, then you are helping Israel to kill and kill the last chance for peace.”
Approximately 700,000 Jewish settlers now live on annexed land in East Jerusalem and the West Bank, which was seized in the Six-Day War in 1967. Most of the world considers settlement expansion illegal.
Well-known human rights groups have concluded that Israel’s seemingly permanent control over millions of Palestinians amounts to apartheid. One such group, Israel’s own B’Tselem, hung banners in the West Bank that were visible from the presidential motorcade.
Israel rejects that label as an attack on its very existence, despite the fact that two former Israeli prime ministers warned years ago that their country would be seen that way if it did not reach a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. The United States also rejects the accusations of apartheid.
Krauss reported from Ottawa. Megerian reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Zeke Miller and Darlene Superville in Washington contributed to this report.