President-elect has said he will not reverse embassy move

Abbas lauds Biden win, said planning to demand return of US Embassy to Tel Aviv

Palestinian official also quoted saying Ramallah ready to resume peace talks, but only from where they were halted under Obama; Israel, meanwhile, fears some setback in US ties

US Vice President Joe Biden (left) with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 9, 2016. (Photo by FLASH90)
US Vice President Joe Biden (left) with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank city of Ramallah, on March 9, 2016. (FLASH90)

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas called on US President-elect Joe Biden Sunday to “strengthen” relations between the Palestinians and Washington, which collapsed during President Donald Trump’s term in office.

In a statement congratulating Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, Abbas urged the incoming administration “to strengthen the Palestinian-American relationship” and to strive for Middle East “peace, stability and security.”

Palestinian ambassador to the UK Hussam Zomlot lauded what he deemed “historic & inspiring elections” in a tweet citing Abbas’s statement. Zomlot was the Palestine Liberation Organization’s envoy to Washington until 2018, when the Trump administration closed the PLO’s diplomatic mission in the American capital.

“I sense the excitement of those who aspire to a just and lasting peace in Palestine. Engagement based on mutual respect, freedom, justice and equality must be the way forward,” Zomlot wrote.

The PA has boycotted Washington since US President Donald Trump’s 2017 declaration that the American embassy would move from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Relations between the two sides have been sour for years. Besides expelling Zomlot, the Trump administration cut aid and formulated a peace plan which the Palestinians saw as too pro-Israel.

PA Prime Minister Mohammad Shtayyeh said on Sunday that the Palestinian leadership is ready for “immediate engagement” with the United States if their conditions are met. Shtayyeh added later that he hoped that the new US leadership will place the Palestinian cause on “their list of priorities.”

“We look forward to constructive bilateral US-Palestinian relations towards achieving a just and lasting peace within the frame of two states and ending the Israeli occupation,” Shtayyeh said in a tweet.

“President Mahmoud Abbas is ready for immediate engagement when there is a partner and a serious process with clear terms of reference,” Shtayyeh.

Meanwhile an unnamed senior official in Abbas’s office was quoted by the Israel Hayom daily as saying Ramallah has sent Biden messages that the PA would be willing to resume US-brokered peace negotiations with Israel, but only from the point where they were halted in 2016 under Trump’s predecessor, Barack Obama.

The official added that Abbas will demand that Biden immediately return the US Embassy from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv, reversing a move Trump made in 2018, and undo Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Biden has previously said that while he plans to take a more evenhanded approach to the Middle East conflict than his predecessor, he will not overturn those decisions.

Abbas adviser Nabil Shaath was quoted by Israel Hayom as saying the PA will also demand that the US reopen the Palestinian diplomatic mission in Washington, which Trump closed, and renew American aid to the Palestinians and to the UN agency for Palestinian refugees and their descendants UNRWA, which Trump ended.

Nabil Shaath speaks to reporters in the West Bank city of Ramallah on October 1, 2011. (Issam Rimawi/Flash90)

Shaath has called the end of Trump’s presidency “a victory.”

Under Trump, relations between Washington and the Palestinian Authority collapsed.

Trump halted funding to UNRWA and rejected the notion that the status of Jerusalem should only be determined as part of bilateral negotiations, among other dramatic policy shifts.

Biden’s election may mark a setback for Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, as the Democrat is likely to seek a more traditional approach to regional diplomacy.

Ismail Haniyeh — head of Hamas, the Islamist terror group that controls the Gaza Strip and openly seeks Israel’s destruction — on Saturday evening called on Biden to “correct” Trump’s “unjust policies.”

Trump’s Middle East peace plan was unveiled in January with no input from the Palestinians, who had pre-emptively rejected it outright having severed all ties to the administration when it recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in December 2017.

Experts agree that while a renewed Middle East peace push is unlikely to top Biden’s immediate agenda, his administration will seek to restore America’s traditional role as a broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“It is likely that they will seek much more engagement” with the Palestinians, said Sarah Feuer of the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.

US President Donald Trump, left, and Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas during a joint press conference at the presidential palace in the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (AFP/Mandel Ngan)

Netanyahu has called Trump Israel’s strongest-ever ally in the White House, and the Republican has advanced policies that delighted the premier’s right-wing base and the wider Israeli mainstream. Trump unilaterally pulled out of the 2015 Iran nuclear deal — an agreement between Tehran and world powers loathed by Netanyahu — and recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s “undivided” capital to the delight of most Israelis. He also endorsed Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights and avoided criticizing settlements in the West Bank. However the administration ultimately stymied a Netanyahu bid to annex the settlements and other West Bank areas earmarked for Israel under the Trump peace plan.

According to a poll before the US election by the Israel Democracy Institute think tank, 63 percent of Israelis wanted Trump to win a second term.

Opposition lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, a staunch right-winger, called on Netanyahu Saturday to make use of Trump’s remaining time in the White House to extend Israeli sovereignty over the West Bank, approving new settlement construction and legalizing wildcat outposts.

Netanyahu indefinitely froze plans to annex parts of the West Bank as part of Israel’s peace agreement with the United Arab Emirates. Biden has strongly opposed such a move, and it is unlikely that Netanyahu will try to implement it now.

Biden is expected to reverse much of Trump’s record, and has said he opposes West Bank settlement construction.

But Biden’s Israel ties run deep and, in keeping with decades of US policy, he has been a vocal supporter of the Jewish state. He visited Israel in 1973, just months after he was first elected to the US Senate. In a 2015 speech, while serving as Barack Obama’s vice president, Biden said the United States was wedded to a “sacred promise to protect the homeland of the Jewish people.”

During the 2012 vice presidential debate, when Biden was facing criticism from Republican Paul Ryan over the Obama administration’s treatment of Israel, Biden asserted that he and Netanyahu had “been friends for 39 years.”

Israel’s former envoy to Washington, Michael Oren, notes Biden does indeed have a “genuine friendship” with Netanyahu. However, Oren believes friction between Biden and Israel will spike if the new administration seeks to revive Obama’s nuclear deal with Iran, a prospect he said had a “very high” likelihood.

“Netanyahu will be perceived as the person who failed to stop the Iran agreement — in 2015 and in 2021,” he told AFP in an interview on Thursday, referring to domestic perceptions of the premier.

Netanyahu, and much of Israel’s security establishment, blasted the Iran deal, claiming it offered an enemy massive financial benefits while failing to eliminate the threat of a nuclear-armed Islamic Republic. Iran insists its nuclear program is strictly for civilian purposes.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (R) holds a joint press conference with US Vice President Joe Biden at the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, March 9, 2016. (Amit Shabi/Pool)

A Biden effort to revive the Iran pact could also affect Israel’s Trump-brokered normalization deals with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, said Eytan Gilboa, a political science professor at Bar-Ilan University.

The Jewish state signed normalization deals with the two Gulf states in September on the White House lawn, spurring a raft of more detailed agreements.

The UAE, Bahrain and especially Saudi Arabia — Sunni Muslim-led states — are bitter rivals of Shiite majority Iran. Experts have said that the normalization deals, as well as warming ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia under Trump, were partly driven by a desire to forge a united front against Iran.

“The Iranians are going to say you cannot have it both ways: you cannot have negotiations with us, and at the same time help to expand the coalition that is basically against us,” Gilboa said.

Israeli officials are also concerned that the growing number of Israel critics in the Democratic Party will have influence over Biden’s administration, Gilboa said.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, tipped for a possible cabinet post, has called Netanyahu a “reactionary racist.” Israel has meanwhile accused two Democratic congresswomen, Rashida Tlaib and Ilhan Omar, of supporting the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement.

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