US President Joe Biden will announce plans to ease access at the Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan, along with a series of other initiatives meant to boost the Palestinians during his visits to East Jerusalem and Bethlehem on Friday.
The improved access at Allenby and another six steps Biden will announce are measures that the US has been pushing Israel on for months, as the US seeks to bolster Ramallah’s standing, despite the lack of a diplomatic horizon and what some see as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’s tenuous grip on power.
Ramallah argues that the quality-of-life moves amount to little more than a fig leaf without diplomatic progress toward a two-state solution. Biden angered many Palestinians Wednesday when he dismissed prospects for Palestinian statehood as unrealistic in the short-term.
Nonetheless, a Palestinian official acknowledged that the seven different announcements were more than had been expected by the Palestinian Authority.
Many of the confidence-building measures will require Israeli follow-through, including several initiatives that Israel verbally committed to last year but then never finalized. Implementation may hinge on the outcome of elections set for November 1, the fifth round in some four years, as they could usher the return of a hard-right government that will seek to marginalize the Palestinians.
Biden is scheduled to make the announcements during a visit to Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem and a meeting with Abbas in Bethlehem on Friday morning, the White House said.
He will reveal that Israel has agreed to enable access at the Allenby Crossing 24/7, up from the current hours of 8 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. during the week and 8:00 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on the weekends. The crossing is almost exclusively used by Palestinians, who have a much more difficult time receiving permits to fly out of Ben Gurion Airport. As a result, most fly to Amman and then are forced to pay a series of extra fees in addition to often waiting several hours to get through the border.
A working group will also be created by Israel to assess whether biometric passports could be accepted at the crossing to speed up operations; it will report back to the US its conclusions within a month, the White House said. The working group will also weigh “steps to establish Palestinian Authority presence at the Allenby Bridge while maintaining Israel’s security considerations.”
The latter possibility has been a central Palestinian demand regarding Allenby. Israel agreed to allow PA police officers to operate at the crossing as part of the 1995 Oslo Accords, but never implemented that section of the agreement.
The US announcement only says Israel will consider the proposal. Hardline former prime minister Naftali Bennett leaked to the Hebrew press that he would not allow such a move when word of the US effort to push Israel on the issue got out last month. Prime Minister Yair Lapid is thought to be more open to the idea. On Thursday, he reiterated his support for a two-state solution.
Biden will also announce an additional $316 million in financial support for the Palestinians on top of the roughly $500 million it has already announced over the past year and a half. One hundred million dollars of that sum will come from the US Agency for International Development — subject to Congressional approval — and go toward the East Jerusalem Hospital Network. it will be announced by Biden when he visits the Augusta Victoria Hospital on Friday morning.
First Lady Jill Biden visited the medical center on the Mount of Olives in 2010 and announced the donation of new equipment for the oncology ward.
It will be the first visit by a sitting US president to anywhere in East Jerusalem that is not the Old City and will likely please Palestinians, who view the area as the capital of their future state.
Israeli officials have been seeking to join Biden on the visit, an Israeli source revealed last week, ostensibly to assert Israeli sovereignty over the whole city. The US ultimately pushed back on the request, and a senior administration official briefing reporters Thursday explained that this was because it was a “private visit to a private hospital.”
The East Jerusalem Hospital Network is not formally run by the PA and works with Israeli HMOs, but it also plays a key role in the Palestinian health care system. Much of the network’s operating budget comes from treating Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza, for which the PA foots the bill.
In addition to the new US funding, the UAE has announced its own $25 million donation and several other Gulf states will follow suit when Biden is in Jeddah for the GCC+3 summit of Middle Eastern countries.
The majority — $201 million — of the new US funding — will go toward the UN agency for Palestinian refugees, UNRWA, bringing the total amount of assistance the organization has received from the Biden administration to $618 million dollars.
This announcement is likely to irk pro-Israel groups, which regularly accuse the UN agency of perpetuating the conflict and its officials of anti-Israel bias and even antisemitism.
In an apparent reference to the criticism, the White House said, “UNRWA’s work must be done while fully respecting the UN principles of neutrality, tolerance, human rights, equity, and non-discrimination.”
To promote grassroots peace-building efforts between Israelis and Palestinians, the administration will announce two new grants under the Middle East Partnership for Peace Act (MEPPA), which authorizes $250 million over five years for dialogue programs and Palestinian business development.
The Israel-based Peres Center for Peace will receive $2.21 million to support “collaboration and professional exchanges between the Palestinian and Israeli health sectors,” the US readout said. An organization called Appleseeds will receive $5 million to “provide young Palestinian and Israeli professionals the opportunity to work together and learn critical technology and leadership.”
The final $15 million in financial aid will go to support Palestinians hardest hit by rising food insecurity in Gaza and the West Bank as a result of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
Biden will also convey to Abbas Israel’s readiness to convene the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Economic Committee for the first time since 2009. Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Frej said the panel would meet last November, but no such gathering has taken place and the White House did not set a date for when it would.
The committee is mandated in the Oslo Accords to discuss joint economic issues, including wastewater, clean energy, and other measures that impact Palestinian lives in the West Bank. The PA has for years sought to reconvene the body but was largely dismissed by Israel.
In the meantime, Biden announced that Israel agreed to increase the number of permits for Palestinians in Gaza to work and do business in Israel to 15,500 — up from the roughly 14,000 mark reached last month.
Lastly, Biden will announce that Israel will allow Palestinian cellular companies in the West Bank and Gaza to connect to fourth-generation networks by the end of 2023 — a move that left PA leaders largely unimpressed when it was previewed a day earlier, given that this too has been a promise they’ve heard from Israel since last year.
Palestinians in the West Bank are still stuck on largely outmoded 3G tech while those in Gaza use even slower second-generation connections.
“Israeli and Palestinian teams will work together immediately to start the technological surveys, with an aim to roll out an advanced infrastructure for 4G by the end of 2023,” the White House said. “This commitment will accelerate digital transformation and foster a more well-connected Palestinian economy.
While many of the gestures announced by Biden are ultimately Israeli, a US official said Lapid’s government preferred to distance itself, seemingly to avoid optics that could be interpreted as strengthening the Palestinians ahead of elections.
During a Thursday briefing with reporters to discuss the trip, the senior US official revealed that Biden had raised concerns regarding Israeli plans to advance the controversial E1 settlement project.
Building in E-1 would link Jerusalem to a large settlement to its east, Ma’ale Adumim, while essentially bisecting the West Bank in two and making a contiguous Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital nearly impossible, critics say.
Israel agreed to push off a meeting to advance the project that had been scheduled for several days after Biden’s visit but quickly rescheduled it for September 12. An official familiar with the matter said Biden asked Lapid to ensure that the project is taken off the table entirely, but the premier was non-committal.
The senior US official briefing reporters said the E1 project is “hugely problematic” but added that the conversations on settlements were “very constructive.”
Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha, who served as an adviser to the US consul general in Jerusalem, was critical of the Biden announcements, lamenting that the US used most of its efforts to try and convince Israel to take a series of economic-related steps, rather than utilize that political capital to take steps of their own
“A much more strategic level of engagement by the American president is needed,” said Dalalsha who is currently the director of the Ramallah-based Horizon Center for Political Studies and Media Outreach.
After meeting Abbas and issuing a joint statement with the PA leader regarding their shared vision for the two-state solution, Biden will finish his time in the West Bank with a visit to the Church of Nativity to “underscore support for Christians who face challenges across the region,” the senior US official said.
Asked whether Biden would address the growing efforts by ultranationalist Jewish groups to take over church lands in East Jerusalem, the senior official said such matters would be raised in the meetings, without elaborating.