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Abu Akleh killing ‘casting shadow’ over Biden’s upcoming trip, Israeli official says

Senior official takes issue with US-drawn ‘symmetry’ between ‘thorough’ Israeli probe and PA’s lackluster one; says progress on boosting Israeli-Saudi ties would be ‘game-changer’

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US correspondent based in New York

Palestinians hold posters displaying veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen as she covered a raid in Jenin on May 11, 2022. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)
Palestinians hold posters displaying veteran Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was shot dead during clashes between Israeli troops and Palestinian gunmen as she covered a raid in Jenin on May 11, 2022. (HAZEM BADER / AFP)

WASHINGTON — The recent killing of Shireen Abu Akleh has “cast a shadow” over US President Joe Biden’s upcoming trip to the region, a senior Israeli official acknowledged Wednesday, while also criticizing Washington’s decision to declare that the Palestinian-American reporter had likely been shot by the IDF.

The frustration — echoing statements made by other Israeli officials — was voiced during a wide-ranging briefing with several dozen reporters in Washington regarding the president’s upcoming July 13-17 visit to Israel, the West Bank and Saudi Arabia. The briefing was held on condition of anonymity.

Abu Akleh was killed in clashes between Israeli soldiers and Palestinian gunmen during an IDF raid in the northern West Bank city of Jenin on May 11. The Palestinian Authority said its investigation found that the prominent Al Jazeera journalist was intentionally shot by Israel. Israel flatly rejected the accusation and said its own probe could not determine who was behind the killing, given that Ramallah refused to share the lethal bullet it collected from the scene.

After considerable pressure from the Biden administration, the PA agreed on Saturday to hand over the bullet to the US Security Coordinator in Jerusalem, which liaises between Israel and the Palestinians. The State Department said Monday that the USSC’s office conducted a forensic examination but was unable to reach a definitive conclusion as the bullet was too damaged. However, the USSC determined that based on reviews of both the Israeli and PA investigations, while there was “no reason” to believe it was intentional, the gunfire from IDF positions was likely responsible for Abu Akleh’s death.

The senior Israeli official, took issue with the latter conclusion, arguing that it shouldn’t have been voiced if the US was also insisting that the bullet analysis was indeterminate.

Moreover, the official lamented the “symmetry” that the State Department’s announcement created between the Israeli and PA probes.

File: Palestinians visit the site where veteran Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed, in the West Bank city of Jenin, May 18, 2022. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed, File)

The IDF conducted a “thorough” investigation, questioning each soldier who operated at the scene, determining where each one stood and the direction in which they fired, the senior official claimed. As a result, the army managed to narrow down the list of possibly involved soldiers to one. While it wasn’t able to reach a definitive determination without the bullet, the IDF did conclude that the shooting was not intentional, he said.

The PA, on the other hand, was not able to carry out the same level of investigation, the senior Israeli official claimed, noting that the PA has “lost control” in Jenin and did not interview the Palestinian gunmen or have access to their weapons.

“Both sides use the same rifles — American rifles,” the senior Israeli official revealed. A day earlier, a group of progressive House Democrats submitted legislation that would force the US to conduct its own investigation into the killing in which it would also be mandated to determine whether US weapons were used in the death of an American citizen. The bill — first revealed by the Jewish Currents magazine — has virtually no chance of passing.

Regardless, the senior Israeli official argued that any conclusion drawn from the findings of the PA investigation would be flawed.

“With all due respect, I don’t think that there’s any symmetry here” between the investigations, he said.

Palestinian Salim Wad points out bullets holes left from a gun battle between Palestinian militants and Israeli soldiers in a set of narrow alleys some 300 meters (yards) from where veteran Palestinian-American Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh was shot and killed, in the West Bank city of Jenin, May 19, 2022. (AP/Majdi Mohammed)

“I hope this will not cast a shadow over… Israeli-Palestinian relations and over the president’s visit, but that’s where we are,” the senior official lamented.

What the Arabs really think of the Palestinians

While arguing that neither the Israeli nor the Palestinian leadership are ready to shoulder diplomatic negotiations, given the political turmoil in Jerusalem and the “weak and dysfunctional” PA, the senior official said that Israel is still weighing a series of measures aimed at strengthening the PA and enabling it to “better cope with internal pressure, including from [Gaza-ruling terror group] Hamas.”

The official also called on the PA to improve its ties with several neighboring Arab countries, which have soured since the Abraham Accords normalization agreements Israel signed with the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco. Ramallah called the deals, brokered by the previous US administration of Donald Trump, a stab in the back, as they reversed the long-held notion that peace with the Palestinians would be a prerequisite for Israel to fully integrate into the rest of the region.

The Biden administration and some of the Arab countries that maintain ties with Israel have sought to leverage the Abraham Accords to advance the Palestinian issue. The Negev Forum — created earlier this year with representatives from the US, Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Morocco and Egypt — integrated the Palestinian issue into all six working groups aimed at boosting regional cooperation across a variety of fields.

But Ramallah has been reluctant to cooperate thus far, concerned about giving legitimacy to an effort to further improve Israel’s diplomatic standing in the Middle East while Jerusalem holds off on making major concessions for a two-state solution.

Closing their talks at the Negev Summit, Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Abdullatif bin Rashid al-Zayani, left, Egypt’s Foreign Minister Sameh Shoukry, Israel’s Foreign Minister Yair Lapid, U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken, Morocco’s Foreign Minister Nasser Bourita, and United Arab Emirates’ Foreign Minister Sheikh Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyan, pose for a photograph Monday, March 28, 2022, in Sde Boker, Israel. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, Pool)

“I hope that with time, it’ll dawn on them that they can benefit from [the Abraham Accords] as well,” the senior Israeli official said.

Hinting at significant frustration with the PA among leaders across the region, the senior official said: “I don’t want to quote some of the things I hear from the Arabs about the Palestinians.”

While the government in Jerusalem is now led by Yair Lapid, who supports a two-state solution, this is not the official Israeli position, he said, explaining that the cabinet still includes members who oppose the notion and therefore maintain a position of ambiguity.

Asked whether Israel would avoid advancing unilateral steps ahead of Biden’s trip, the senior official sufficed by saying: “Israel will do everything possible to make this visit a success.”

Israel pleased with Biden’s Abraham Accords embrace

As far as Israel is concerned, the main rationale behind Biden’s trip is to promote “regional integration” between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the official said.

Going over the schedule for the trip, the senior Israeli official said that Biden will receive a welcome ceremony upon landing at Ben Gurion Airport next Wednesday afternoon. He will hold bilateral meetings with Israeli leaders and meet with opposition chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, in addition to visiting an Iron Dome battery, touring the Yad Vashem Holocaust museum and holding a virtual meeting with Lapid, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi and UAE President Mohammed bin Zayed.

He is expected to then visit one of the medical centers in the East Jerusalem Hospital Network before traveling to Bethlehem on Friday for a meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas, followed by a direct flight to Jeddah for the GCC+3 conference.

The senior Israeli official noted with appreciation the “increasing” commitment from the Biden administration to the Abraham Accords more broadly, hinting at what was widely seen as the White House’s initial hesitance to fully embrace an initiative championed by the previous president.

Related: US aims to close island transfer, Saudi normalization steps before Biden trip

Expanding the Abraham Accords and convincing Saudi Arabia to “move in that direction” would be a “game-changer for the region,” the official added.

He acknowledged efforts to create an integrated air defense system between Israel and its Arab neighbors in order to better cooperate against Iran and its proxies. However, the official clarified that “there’s a long way to go” until the initiative can be announced.

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