Frustrated by his cautious approach, Palestinians lose faith in Biden

Officials in Ramallah appreciate US president’s restoration of two-state solution narrative, but not his refusal to reopen diplomatic missions or embrace Abbas

Jacob Magid
Aaron Boxerman
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and then-US vice president Joe Biden after a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 10, 2010. (AP/Bernat Armangue)
Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, left, and then-US vice president Joe Biden after a meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, March 10, 2010. (AP/Bernat Armangue)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — Euphoria washed over Ramallah when Joe Biden was elected president of the United States in November 2020.

Palestinian officials say it had more to do with Donald Trump’s exit than the return of a Democrat to the White House, as the previous four years had seen US-Palestinian relations deteriorate to an all-time low. Ramallah severed ties with Washington after Trump recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital in 2017. The Republican president responded by cutting virtually all aid to the Palestinians, shuttering their diplomatic mission in Washington and closing the US consulate in Jerusalem, which had served as a de facto embassy to the Palestinians.

But Biden campaigned on rolling those steps back, and it led to rising expectations in Ramallah as to what might be possible over the next four years.

Fast forward a year and a half and those high hopes have been dashed, with four Palestinian officials telling The Times of Israel that they no longer have faith the US can deliver on its promises, let alone launch bolder initiatives aimed at resolving the conflict.

Their primary grievance relates to the Jerusalem consulate, which the US has yet to reopen amid Israeli pushback. Administration officials insist publicly that the matter remains on their agenda, but in private they admit they’re not going to act against the express wishes of their longtime ally.

The US president is slated to visit Israel late next month, for a trip that will include a stop in the West Bank to meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But Ramallah is not optimistic it will mark a shift in Washington’s priorities.

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

“We are still waiting for the fulfillment of this administration’s promises to us. And now, especially with the crisis between Ukraine and Russia, [the US] will not advance any tangible, concrete steps,” said senior Palestine Liberation Organization official Ahmad Majdalani.

Responding to the criticism, a US official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said they understood Ramallah’s frustration, but insisted Washington was “making the most out of the hand [it’s] been dealt.”

Despite a weakened Palestinian leadership and a fragile Israeli coalition, it has managed to coax Jerusalem to take a series of small steps to bolster the Palestinian economy and strengthen the PA, the US official said. “Our position in favor of keeping the two-state solution alive is not just rhetoric.”

Hope, but no change

While reopening the consulate remains unlikely and resurrecting the PLO diplomatic office in Washington even less so, Biden did quickly follow through on his pledge to restore humanitarian assistance to the Palestinians, to the tune of over $500 million.

He revived American rhetoric in favor of a two-state solution, albeit while maintaining that the sides are not currently ready for high-stakes negotiations aimed at achieving that framework. Biden also reestablished US opposition to Israeli settlement expansion, even if his response to such moves remained rhetorical.

Construction work in the Israeli settlement of Givat Zeev, near the Palestinian city of Ramallah in the West Bank, on October 28, 2021. (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Still, these steps bought him some goodwill with the PA, which did not put up a fight when US officials said they wanted to hold off on reopening the consulate until after the new Israeli government passed a budget last November in order to ensure the coalition’s stability.

“There was some patience with the timing for when [Trump’s measures] would be reversed, but the US violated its own timeline,” said one Palestinian official, recalling that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken announced that administration would be moving forward with its pledge to reopen the consulate already last May.

This was shortly after an 11-day flare-up of violence between Israel and Gaza terror groups, which the Biden administration helped draw to a close relatively quickly thanks to an intensive diplomatic effort led by Egypt. Biden spoke to Abbas for the first time as president during the war and afterward stressed the importance of working with the PA to rehabilitate the Gaza Strip so that Hamas could not benefit.

“The feeling last May was that the US was back in the game,” the Palestinian official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. “But then nothing changed.”

Neighbors gather in a clearing strewn with debris from an airstrike during an 11-day war between Gaza’s Hamas rulers and Israel, in Beit Hanoun, Gaza Strip, May 26, 2021. (John Minchillo/AP)

Losing its leverage

Even on issues that don’t require some degree of Israeli cooperation for the US to advance, Ramallah has not seen movement.

Ibrahim Eid Dalalsha — who served as an adviser to the US consul general in Jerusalem and is currently the director of the Ramallah-based Horizon Center for Political Studies and Media Outreach — pointed to PA requests for Biden to nullify 1987 Congressional legislation that characterizes the PLO and its affiliates as terror organizations. Scrapping the law would simplify efforts to reopen the PLO mission in Washington, and Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel last year that they would be prepared to reform their controversial prisoner payments policy if the US delivers.

Israel and the US say the PA welfare system, which includes payments to security prisoners and the families of slain attackers, incentivizes terror and have demanded its cessation.

“But the American administration has lost its leverage over the Palestinian leadership,” Dalalsha said, speculating that the Palestinians would not budge on any number of reforms due to Biden’s failure to keep his word on undoing key steps taken by Trump. Palestinian officials said as much earlier this year.

“It sounds petty, but when you compare us to [Prime Minister Naftali] Bennett who got a White House invitation and several phone calls with [Biden], you’ll notice that Abbas hasn’t received any of this,” said a senior Palestinian diplomat. “This would go a long way toward healing the relationship, and it doesn’t cost Biden much.”

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, meets US President Donald Trump In the West Bank city of Bethlehem on May 23, 2017. (Fadi Arouri, Xinhua Pool via AP)

Regardless, the senior diplomat predicted that US-Palestinian ties would not deteriorate to Trump-era levels. “There is still appreciation that he’s changed the narrative regarding the two-state solution” after Biden’s predecessor moved away from the traditional framework. Trump’s peace plan described a “realistic two-state solution,” granting semi-autonomy to the PA on West Bank lands, excluding all Jewish settlements.

Missing the normalization train

Unconvinced that the timing is right for high-stakes Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, what the Biden administration has sought to do is fold the Palestinians into the Abraham Accords, so that the benefits of the enhanced regional cooperation can be enjoyed by Ramallah as well.

The PA has yet to warm to the idea, arguing that the Trump administration brokered the normalization agreements between Israel, the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco in order to bypass Ramallah entirely.

Referencing a recent Axios report speculating that the US is weighing using Biden’s visit to the region next month to hold another gathering of regional leaders akin to the March Negev Summit, Dalalsha argued that this would only weaken Abbas.

“They prefer to focus on so-called regional peace and normalization rather than Israeli-Palestinian peace,” lamented Majdalani, the PLO official.

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)

But former US Ambassador to Israel Dan Shapiro pushed back on the dominant Palestinian position.

“There is a strong perception that the Palestinians are determined to sit on the sidelines and not make any moves of their own, ignoring the one potential source of positive energy in the region — normalization,” said Shapiro, who currently serves as a distinguished fellow in the Atlantic Council’s Middle East program.

“They have to recognize that there is a process moving forward in the region,” he added. “And when something is moving, you either get on board in a way in which you can benefit, or you are left behind.”

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