ExclusiveUS also failed to reach joint statement with Palestinians

How Israel nearly turned Biden’s East Jerusalem visit into a diplomatic incident

Israel sent Health Ministry reps to ‘crash’ US advance trip to hospital; only dropped push to join Biden after months of prodding at highest levels, senior US official tells ToI

Jacob Magid

Jacob Magid is The Times of Israel's US bureau chief

US President Joe Biden speaks during a visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem on July 15, 2022 (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)
US President Joe Biden speaks during a visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem on July 15, 2022 (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

Israel was prepared to turn US President Joe Biden’s visit to a hospital in East Jerusalem into a major diplomatic incident due to Washington’s refusal to allow any Israeli officials to join, a senior administration official revealed to The Times of Israel.

The tour of Augusta Victoria Hospital last Friday constituted the first time that a US president set foot in East Jerusalem, outside the Old City. Israel viewed the visit as a political statement by the administration aimed at recognizing Palestinian ties to the majority-Palestinian part of the capital.

As a result, it tried for months to convince the US to allow Israeli government officials to attend the visit in order to demonstrate that East Jerusalem is part of its undivided capital, the senior Biden administration official explained in a conversation held several days after the president’s trip to the region.

But the US rebuffed the repeated efforts, asserting that Biden’s visit was not a political statement, but rather about the promotion of healthcare for all.

In his remarks at Augusta Victoria, Biden focused largely on that point, saying a new $100 million US donation to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network was “part of our commitment to support health and dignity [for] the Palestinian people.”

However, Israel remained unconvinced in the lead-up to the president’s trip regarding the administration’s intentions and for roughly two months had officials from the highest levels of government in Jerusalem reaching out to their American counterparts — imploring that Israeli representatives be allowed to accompany Biden, the senior US official said. The official added that the effort began during Naftali Bennett’s tenure as prime minister but continued after he was replaced by Yair Lapid on July 1, and even included phone calls from former senior Israeli officials to the US embassy in Jerusalem.

Visitors exit the Augusta Victoria Hospital ahead of a visit by U. President Joe Biden, in East Jerusalem, Monday, July 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

Several weeks before the president’s arrival, the US sent an advance team to Israel in order to prepare for the trip. The team’s schedule included a stop at Augusta Victoria in order to finalize details for the visit. But they were met upon arrival there by a pair of representatives from Israel’s Health Ministry who sought to “crash” the meeting, the senior administration official said. The representatives insisted that their attendance had been approved by the US embassy, even though the latter had never granted such authorization.

Just days before the Biden visit, the Israeli government made the “strategic decision” to allow it to move forward without one of their representatives present, the US official said.

The official maintained that while the president avoided making any political statements regarding East Jerusalem, the decision to make a stop in that part of the city was “intentional,” without elaborating further.

The Foreign Ministry declined a request for comment.

Protesters wave Palestinian flags as Israeli police stand by, near the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem during the visit by US President Joe Biden, Friday, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Ripple effects of Trump’s Jerusalem policy

The US stance on Jerusalem featured prominently in the planning of Biden’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which took place in Bethlehem immediately after the stop at Augusta Victoria.

Biden and Abbas’s offices initially sought to have the two leaders issue a joint statement following their meeting that would highlight the areas of US-Palestinian agreement regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the administration official said.

Washington drafted a version that was sent to Ramallah for approval. The PA returned the statement with edits that went much further than the Biden administration was willing to go. In a last-ditch effort to reach a compromise, the White House asked Abbas’s office what its red line was for the statement and Ramallah responded that it would have to include recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.

The administration official explained that the US would not be able to make such a declaration because it would violate the proclamation signed by former president Donald Trump, which recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while maintaining that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty would be “subject to final status negotiations between the parties.”

Upon realizing that the US would not be able to move on the issue, Abbas’s office suggested that the two presidents simply issue separate statements at the conclusion of their meeting.

In the event, Biden did go on — for the first time as president — to express support for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines, with agreed-upon land swaps, in a subtle nod to Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem.

US President Joe Biden, left, listens as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speaks during a joint statement in the West Bank town of Bethlehem, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

But he sufficed by saying that Jerusalem “must be a city for all its people,” with the status quo maintained at its holy sites.

Abbas, on the other hand, specified that a peace deal would require “ending the Israeli occupation of our land, the land of the state of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on the 1967 borders.”

In both his public remarks and in their private meeting, Abbas pressed Biden on the PA’s longheld demands that the administration follow through on pledges to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO diplomatic office in Washington, in addition to scrapping a 1987 Congressional law that characterizes the PLO and its affiliates as terror organizations.

“We are not terrorists,” Abbas told Biden in his public remarks.

Palestinian security forces stand guard as two Palestinian boys wave national flags during a protest in Bethlehem in the West Bank as US President Joe Biden visited on July 15, 2022 (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

Biden ‘honest’ about what he can deliver to PA

In the closed-door meeting, Biden was “honest about what he would be able to do,” the senior administration official said, without going as far as to explicitly say that the president told Abbas that reopening the consulate would not be possible due to Israeli opposition.

To discuss the issue of the PLO office in Washington, representatives from the newly minted US Office of Palestinian Affairs were called on to explain what the PA would have to do in order to allow for its reopening. Abbas was told that US law would require him to drop his efforts against Israel at the International Criminal Court along with ceasing efforts to join UN agencies and to become a UN member state — a particularly hard pill for Ramallah to swallow, given that the PA president asked Biden during the meeting for his support with the latter effort, the administration official acknowledged.

If they were to pledge to roll back those initiatives, the White House would consider signing a waiver that would allow for the temporary reopening of the PLO office, the US official said, adding that the waiver process could be scrapped entirely if Ramallah followed through on those pledges.

Abbas was also told during the meeting that scrapping the 1987 law would require the PA to reform its welfare policy, which provides for payments to security prisoners including terrorists who carried out attacks against Israelis along with the families of slain terrorists and assailants, a second senior administration official said.

The Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Office is seen in Washington, DC, on November 21, 2017. (AFP/SAUL LOEB)

Ramallah has expressed willingness to reform the policy in closed-door meetings, including in the latest one with Biden, and has drafted a proposal that would see payments to prisoners be based on financial need, rather than the length of the prison sentence as is currently the case, two Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel last year. However, the reform has never been implemented.

Nonetheless, the second senior administration official said they “found the overall mood in Bethlehem to be fairly constructive, compared to where things stood a month ago.” Then Abbas had met with a visiting US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf and said he was prepared to cut security ties with Israel over the latter’s actions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.

The senior US official indicated that Abbas had since stepped back from that position as a result of the president’s visit and the series of steps aimed at improving the economy and livelihood for Palestinians under Israeli control.

Those steps included the announcement of 4G cell phone access for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, expanding the hours at the Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan to 24/7, and the reconvening of the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Economic Committee.

A banner that includes an Israeli flag and a Palestinian flag, as part of a campaign by left-wing group Peace Now, in the lead-up to US President Joe Biden’s official visit, on display in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2022. “President Biden, welcome to the two states we love the most,” it reads. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

But these are measures that have been announced before by Israel and then never implemented. The first senior US official speaking to The Times of Israel recognized that the Biden administration will have to follow up with Jerusalem on these steps to ensure that they are seen through this time.

The official added that the White House is planning to look into what it can do to advance contacts between Lapid and Abbas moving forward. The two leaders spoke days before Biden’s visit in what was the first such call between an Israeli prime minister and Abbas in five years.

Lapid told French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this month that he would not rule out the possibility of meeting Abbas in person, though there were no immediate plans for such a sit-down to take place. His office has in the past maintained that it doesn’t want to take a meeting with Abbas without a clear agenda due to fears of unnecessarily raising Palestinian expectations.

Abbas’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

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