WASHINGTON — While the replacement of Naftali Bennett in the Prime Minister’s Office with the more moderate Yair Lapid may have given proponents of a peace process with the Palestinians cause for optimism, a senior US official told The Times of Israel on Wednesday that the development may actually complicate Jerusalem’s ties with the Palestinians in the short term.
Lapid in the past has voiced support for a two-state solution — which his predecessor vehemently opposes — and in his first speech as prime minister expressed his willingness to make peace with the Palestinians.
The rhetoric is a welcome development, as far as the US is concerned, and there is hope in Washington that Lapid will stake out such a position while standing beside US President Joe Biden when the latter visits Israel next week.
But as Biden officials seek to finalize a package of steps the administration plans to announce on the trip to strengthen the Palestinian Authority, it has found over the past week that doing so will be more difficult under Lapid than it was expected to be under Bennett, a senior US official acknowledged to The Times of Israel during a conversation about the upcoming presidential visit.
This is because Lapid is merely an interim prime minister in the midst of an election campaign and therefore “has appeared less willing to take steps vis-à-vis the Palestinians that could expose him to criticism from political rivals,” the official explained, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Bennett — who stepped aside last Thursday after deciding to collapse his diverse coalition after just one year — refused to meet PA President Mahmoud Abbas or entertain political negotiations with the Palestinians throughout his year at the helm.
However, he did sign off on a series of steps aimed at boosting the Palestinian economy, such as the approval of thousands of entry permits for Palestinians from the West Bank and Gaza to work in Israel and the granting of IDs to thousands of undocumented Palestinians.
More steps of this nature were being weighed by Bennett’s office in the lead-up to Biden’s trip, an Israeli official said, adding that they still well could be approved by Lapid.
But “with Bennett, there was a government, and we weren’t in the middle of a[n election] campaign,” the senior US official said.
The official clarified that the US still plans to announce a series of “deliverables” for the PA during Biden’s trip. Some of them will be US initiatives and others will be Israeli ones that Biden will announce on behalf of Lapid, who prefers some distance from the concessions. Among the US gestures is one related to the Palestinian economy that Ramallah has long requested, the official said, declining to elaborate further as the matter is still being finalized.
According to a Palestinian official and an Israeli official, the Biden administration also received a commitment from Jerusalem that it would delay three moves: the advancement of a controversial settlement project in the West Bank’s E1 area, new restrictions on foreigners entering Palestinian areas of the West Bank and evictions in Masafer Yatta — a collection of rural Palestinian villages in the South Hebron Hills.
These commitments are in place only until after the Biden trip, or, in the case of the E1 project, September 12, but they were enough to at least temporarily talk down the PA from threats to cut security ties with Israel amid bubbling tension over settlement approvals, clashes on the Temple Mount, IDF raids into the formally PA-controlled Area A of the West Bank, and the killing of Palestinian-American reporter Shireen Abu Akleh.
But frustration in Ramallah remains, particularly after the US announcement that its forensic analysis of the bullet that killed Abu Akleh was inconclusive and that while the IDF likely was responsible for her death, she was not shot intentionally.
Despite the limitations posed by Israel’s caretaker government, the Biden administration is still hoping it can win over the PA on the trip.
It is well aware of Ramallah’s demands that it fulfill its pledge to reopen the US Consulate in Jerusalem, reopen the Palestinian Liberation Organization diplomatic office in Washington, and scrap 1987 Congressional legislation that deems the PLO and its affiliates terror organizations. While those demands won’t be met in the immediate future — Israel opposes reopening the consulate and Biden has sought to avoid a confrontation with the Jewish state on the matter — the White House is planning on holding a call with PA counterparts ahead of the visit to carefully go over what Ramallah will have to do in order to advance the latter two demands, the senior US official said.
The PA will have to cease its so-called martyr payments to security prisoners and to the families of slain attackers and terrorists. Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel in 2020 that they were prepared to reform the policy so that the stipends would be based on financial need rather than time served, but little progress has been made since.
The PA would also have to prove that the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine — designated by Israel and the US as a terror group — is not at all affiliated with the PLO, and demonstrate disassociation from the Al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades, a coalition of armed groups loosely affiliated to the PA’s ruling Fatah party.
The steps may prove to be a tall task for Ramallah, which is already deeply unpopular among Palestinians for its limited cooperation with successive Israeli governments that have not advanced the peace process.
What the Biden administration will be able to do, though, is announce a significant funding initiative for the East Jerusalem Hospital Network when Biden visits one of the hospitals next Friday, a senior Israeli official said.
The exact medical center has not yet been finalized but an Israeli source familiar with the matter said it would likely be Augusta Victoria Hospital on the Mount of Olives. First Lady Jill Biden visited 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. Perhaps for that reason, Israeli officials have been seeking to join Biden on the visit, the Israeli source revealed, adding that the US has thus far pushed back on the request.
The 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, Biden will be announcing similar donations to the hospital network from several Gulf states, a Middle Eastern diplomat said.
Still this part of his visit is unlikely to satisfy the PA, which has stated that it expects Biden to use the trip to re-establish a “political horizon” between Israeli and Palestinians.
A senior Israeli official said Washington largely accepts Jerusalem’s position that the sides are not ready for high-stakes negotiations and that therefore a meeting between Lapid and Abbas would not be fruitful at this moment.
Asked about the prospects for such a summit earlier this week, Lapid told reporters: “I don’t have meetings for the sake of meetings unless they have a positive result for Israel. At the moment it is not on the agenda, but I do not rule it out.”
Nonetheless, the US has proposed that Lapid at least take a phone call from Abbas or sign off on President Isaac Herzog meeting with the PA president, the second Israeli source said, adding that no decision has been made yet by the new premier.
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