The Palestinian Authority hoped for more from Joe Biden when he visited the region last July, but the US president did not come empty-handed.
While Ramallah had pushed for strong US diplomatic engagement on efforts toward a negotiated two-state solution, Biden instead announced a series of more interim measures aimed at improving Palestinian lives.
The package of steps announced by the White House included a donation to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, the roll-out of 4G digital connectivity for the West Bank and Gaza, relaunching the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Economic Committee, and expanding the operation of the Allenby crossing between the West Bank and Jordan to 24 hours a day.
The package fell short of fulfilling Biden’s pledge to reopen diplomatic missions for the Palestinians in Washington and Jerusalem, but one PA official acknowledged at the time that the steps were more than what Ramallah had expected.
The official, who spoke on condition of anonymity, nonetheless expressed skepticism that the US would be able to follow through, given that most of the measures required cooperation from Israel, which had avoided endorsing the White House’s July announcement.
That skepticism was at least partially warranted. Three months later, most of the measures announced are still waiting to come to fruition, though hopes remain high they will overcome bureaucratic hurdles and other hiccups that have kept the promises from full implementation.
East Jerusalem Hospital Network aid
During his July visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, Biden announced a multi-year contribution of $100 million to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network.
A State Department spokesperson said that $14.5 million from that pledge has already been delivered and that the administration is working with Congress to get the remaining funds approved.
Biden also announced that the UAE, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait had agreed to together match the US donation by proving $25 million each.
On Monday, the UAE announced the fulfillment of that pledge in the form of a cooperation agreement with the World Health Organization to support the Al Makassed Hospital in East Jerusalem.
A separate State Department official told The Times of Israel that securing donations from the other three countries has been a bit more difficult. The official expressed optimism that Qatar and Kuwait would follow through in the coming weeks, noting that the latter just came out of an election season.
Saudi Arabia, however, has become a “trickier” partner in recent weeks following Riyadh’s effort to cut OPEC’s oil production — a move that significantly strained ties with the US, the official said.
4G in the West Bank and Gaza
Biden said in July that the US was aiming for 4G infrastructure to be up and running in the West Bank and Gaza by the end of next year. This was the one area where Israeli, Palestinian and US officials, who spoke with The Times of Israel on Thursday, appeared to be unanimously optimistic that the sides would be able to meet the president’s goal.
The PA has similarly been pushing this demand for years, given that Israel until now only permits 3G telecommunication service for Palestinians in the West Bank and 2G service for those in Gaza. Israelis on both sides of the Green Line have access to 4G and 5G connections.
PA Communications Minister Ishaq Sidr said that his Israeli counterparts had recently specified 4G frequencies for the PA and that the sides were slated to meet next week in order to prepare a memorandum of understanding on the matter by January 23, 2023.
“I think we are heading in a positive direction because the principles have already been agreed on,” Sidr said. He dismissed the notion that the initiative could be derailed by Israel’s November 1 election, asserting that “this is a humanitarian issue, not a political one.”
A senior US official agreed that “we’re in good shape on this.” However, they hinted at having more optimism about meeting the deadline in the West Bank than in the Gaza Strip.
Joint Economic Committee
Biden also announced that Israel had agreed to reconvene the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Economic Committee for the first time since 2009.
The committee is mandated under the Oslo Accords as the authoritative body for adjudicating financial disputes and promoting joint economic initiatives. It is the forum for the sides to resolve outstanding disagreements regarding trade and commerce. The PA has pushed for the committee to reconvene for years, as it has been unable to update the list of goods that can be imported and exported outside customs regulations.
Despite the initial US announcement, Israel has yet to convene the panel.
An Israeli official speaking on condition of anonymity said Prime Minister Yair Lapid is willing to convene the committee by the end of the year but wants to wait until after the November 1 Knesset election, apparently acknowledging worries that the move would be unpopular domestically and a political liability.
The official was not optimistic that Lapid would follow through even after the vote, speculating that the joint committee meeting would only take place if the other measures announced by the Biden administration fell through, leading Washington to press hard on Jerusalem to deliver in at least one area.
Opening Allenby crossing 24/7
The Allenby crossing, which is a primary access point to and from the West Bank for Palestinians, was supposed to begin operating around the clock on September 30, according to the Biden administration’s July announcement.
That target date was subsequently pushed back a month when the Transportation Ministry notified the US administration that it didn’t have the staffing resources to remain open 24/7.
Instead, it proposed running a pilot program starting October 24 to review its readiness for full-time operations at the border crossing.
The US expected the pilot program to extend for several weeks or months, a senior US official said, but the Transportation Ministry notified the Airports Authority this week that it will only last for a few days.
The head of the Airports Authority, which oversees land border operations, also notified the ministry that it would not allow the pilot to begin without the approval of its board, which isn’t scheduled to meet again until October 24th — the day that the pilot was supposed to be launched.
“We learned recently that this [pilot roll-out] date may be pushed back, but we understand planning for the implementation continues, and we remain in close touch with the Israelis on this and urge this important program to move forward quickly,” the State Department spokesperson said.
An Israeli official said they could not give a date for when the pilot program would commence or when the crossing would begin operating 24/7 on a permanent basis.
The Allenby crossing is currently only open from 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. during the week and 8 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on weekends.
Lines to cross into Jordan can last hours or up to an entire day, creating a headache for Palestinians using the crossing. Israel rarely permits Palestinians to use Ben Gurion Airport, forcing most travelers from the West Bank to instead fly in and out of Amman, which involves crossing via Allenby and paying a series of extra fees.