After hearing Joe Biden identify Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and concede a two-state solution seemed “far away”, one Palestinian official gave a blunt assessment of the US president’s visit to the region.
“It’s like the Trump years with a smile,” said the official, who requested anonymity.
Biden’s predecessor Donald Trump was loathed among Palestinians over his unequivocal pro-Israeli policies.
With Israeli politics gridlocked, few thought that 79-year-old Biden could jumpstart peace talks which have been moribund since 2014.
But there was tempered optimism that Biden’s meeting Friday with Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas in the occupied West Bank town of Bethlehem could deliver modest results.
Palestinians had hoped the US president would finally make good on a promise to re-open a consulate for Palestinians in Jerusalem.
The mission was shuttered by Trump in 2019 and its revival is staunchly opposed by Israel, which considers the city its “undivided” capital.
Reopening the mission could serve as a “shot in the arm” for the peace process, said another Palestinian official speaking anonymously.
But the US leader offered no substantive plan to redress Israel’s occupation, even side-stepping Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank, an issue highlighted by former president Barack Obama’s administration, in which Biden served as vice president.
The US delegation, however, did announce plans for 4G internet access in the West Bank and the Israeli-blockaded Gaza Strip, addressing a longstanding demand by Palestinians which has repeatedly been blocked by Israel.
Biden’s Zionist declaration
The president’s visit got off to a bad start for Palestinians, when Biden declared at an Israeli welcome ceremony: “You need not be a Jew to be a Zionist.”
While every US president since Israel’s creation in 1948 has arguably met a technical definition of Zionism by actively supporting the Jewish state’s existence, Biden’s comment last Wednesday was rare, if not unprecedented for a US leader — and Palestinians took note.
“He came to Israel and declared he was a ‘Zionist’, then he came to Palestine and refused to talk about the fundamentals of the conflict,” the first official said.
A protester attending a rally during the president’s visit to Bethlehem hoisted a sign saying: “Biden, Jerusalem is Palestine – no matter your Zionism.”
Palestinians claim the Israeli-annexed eastern part of the city as their capital.
Biden has for decades publicly supported recognising west Jerusalem as Israel’s capital and has said he will not reverse Trump’s controversial decision to move the US embassy there back to Tel Aviv.
‘We are so weak’
On the peace process, Biden reaffirmed his support for Palestinian statehood while urging perseverance even as conditions appear bleak.
“I know that the goal of the two states seems so far away,” he said in Bethlehem.
“But we never give up on the work of peace,” he added. “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.”
Palestinian prime minister Mohammed Shtayyeh on Sunday said a difficult terrain for peace talks does not excuse American inaction.
“If, as the US president said, the (two-state) solution is currently out of reach, then there must immediately be a (Jewish) settlement freeze, in accordance with international law and resolutions to preserve the right of the Palestinian people to their independent state,” Shtayyeh said.
For Tahani Mustafa, West Bank analyst at the International Crisis Group think-tank, Biden’s visit left “no indication that the situation of the Palestinian people has any place in his administration’s agenda”.
According to sources close to the Palestinian leadership, initial plans to issue a joint Biden-Abbas statement on Friday were scrapped because the sides could not agree on wording.
For Palestinians seeking US leadership capable of forcing Israeli concessions, seeing Biden’s delegation jet off from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia on Friday after a short, unremarkable meeting with Abbas brought familiar feelings of disappointment.
“As usual, we are left with the crumbs,” Issa Abu Ayash told AFP, as he watched television in a Bethlehem cafe broadcasting images of Biden’s motorcade heading to Israel’s airport.
“We are so weak here,” he said.