US announces it’s renewing relations with Palestinians, seeking 2-state solution

Biden Administration to reopen Palestinian diplomatic offices and restore aid, reversing Trump policies, acting envoy Richard Mills tells UN; vows ‘steadfast support for Israel’

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

Then-US Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, shake hands for the press at the presidential compound in Ramallah, West Bank, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. (Debbie Hill, Pool via AP)
Then-US Vice President Joe Biden, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, shake hands for the press at the presidential compound in Ramallah, West Bank, Wednesday, March 9, 2016. (Debbie Hill, Pool via AP)

NEW YORK — The Biden administration announced Tuesday it was renewing US relations with the Palestinian leadership, and restoring “credible engagement” with the Palestinians, as it works toward a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Under the new administration, the policy of the United States will be to support a mutually agreed two-state solution, one in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state,” Richard Mills, the acting US ambassador to the United Nations, told the UN Security Council.

“In order to advance these objectives, the Biden administration will restore credible US engagement with Palestinians as well as Israelis,” he said. “This will involve renewing US relations with the Palestinian leadership and Palestinian people.”

In what were the first major public remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by an official from the Biden administration, Mills specified that Washington will reopen the diplomatic offices serving the Palestinians and restore major aid allocations to the Palestinians — reversing Trump administration policies.

“President Biden has been clear that he intends to restore US assistance programs that support economic development programs and humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people, and to take steps to reopen diplomatic relations that were closed by the last US administration,” Mills said.

The Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, pictured in 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

Former US president Donald Trump closed the Palestinian Liberation Organization’s diplomatic mission in Washington in 2018, against the backdrop of the Palestinian Authority’s boycott of his administration following the US recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. In 2019, the Trump administration shuttered the US consulate in Jerusalem, which served as the de-facto embassy to the Palestinians in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza. The mission was folded into the US embassy to Israel in Jerusalem and the previous position of consulate-general was dissolved.

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

US President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris vowed during the campaign to re-open both missions, but they did not specify how they plan on doing so. Reopening the PLO mission in Washington would violate Congressional legislation that ordered its shuttering if the Palestinians filed a suit against Israel at the ICC, which they did in 2017. Reopening the consulate in Jerusalem would require some degree of permission from the Israeli government, which is not expected to back a move that effectively re-designates the West Bank as a separate entity from Israel.

In his remarks at the Security Council’s monthly meeting on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Mills said the Biden administration’s policy “will be to support a mutually agreed, two-state solution, in which Israel lives in peace and security, alongside a viable Palestinian state.”

Mills said peace cannot be imposed on either side and stressed that progress and an ultimate solution require the participation and agreement of Israelis and Palestinians.

The United States consulate building in Jerusalem, March 4, 2019. (AP/Ariel Schalit)

In addition to reopening diplomatic missions, Mills said the US will restore millions of dollars in Palestinian aid, which was cut under Trump after the Palestinians refused to engage with the US peace efforts. The Trump peace plan unveiled by the administration in early 2020 envisioned Israel annexing all of its settlements in the West Bank — a non-starter for Ramallah.

Acting US Ambassador to the UN Richard Mills (Courtesy)

“We do not view these steps as a favor to the Palestinian leadership. US assistance benefits millions of ordinary Palestinians and helps to preserve a stable environment that benefits both Palestinians and Israelis,” Mills said.

“At the same time, I must be clear, the US will maintain its steadfast support for Israel,” the acting ambassador continued. “Under the Biden Administration, the United States will continue its longstanding policy of opposing one-sided resolutions and other actions in international bodies that unfairly single out Israel.”

Mills said the US will urge countries to follow the paths of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco, which normalized relations with Israel at the behest of the Trump administration. However, the US diplomat clarified that such agreements are “not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace.”

Marking a return to traditional US policy before Trump, which opposed Israeli expansion in the West Bank, Mills called on the sides to avoid unilateral steps such as settlement building, annexation, and home demolitions by Israel and incitement to violence and payments to security prisoners by the Palestinians.

In his own remarks before the Security Council, Israeli Ambassador Gilad Erdan slammed the prisoner payments, referring to it as “pay-to-slay” and arguing that it demonstrated that the Palestinians are not truly interested in peace with Israel.

The UN Security Council meets virtually on January 26, 2020 to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. (Screen capture/United Nations)

Palestinian officials confirmed to The Times of Israel in December that Ramallah is working to alter the way it pays stipends to Palestinian security prisoners, as well as the families of terrorists and others killed by Israelis, in order to lay the groundwork for renewed diplomatic ties with the US. The altered policy would base the stipends on prisoners’ financial need rather than the length of their sentence, potentially marking a shift away from what has long been a sticking point for the PA’s detractors.

The practice of paying allowances to those convicted of carrying out terror attacks and to the families of those killed while carrying out attacks has been pilloried by critics as incentivizing terror.

Palestinian leaders have long defended the payments, describing them as a form of social welfare and necessary compensation for victims of Israel’s callous military justice system in the West Bank.

Over the past year, officials in the US and the EU have warned Ramallah that a failure to substantively change the policy would prove a major obstacle to improved relations, two sources familiar with the matter said.

The change may also usher Ramallah into compliance with the 2018 Taylor Force Act, which suspended US aid to the PA as long as it continued to implement the existing prisoner payment policy.

The PA is hoping the policy change will convince the Biden administration to designate as unconstitutional congressional legislation from 1987 that labeled the PLO “and its affiliates” a terror group, senior Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel in December.

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