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Biden: US to insist on full accounting of Abu Akleh's death

In West Bank alongside Abbas, Biden endorses two states but says ‘ground isn’t ripe’

US president says Palestinians need ‘political horizon,’ tells PA to combat corruption; Abbas slams Israeli ‘apartheid,’ wants PLO off US terror list: ‘We are not terrorists’

US President Joe Biden and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speak together after their statements to the media at the Muqataa Presidential Compound in the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on July 15, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)
US President Joe Biden and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas speak together after their statements to the media at the Muqataa Presidential Compound in the city of Bethlehem in the West Bank on July 15, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

US President Joe Biden acknowledged Friday that an independent state for Palestinians “can seem so far away” as he confronted hopelessness about the stagnant peace process during a visit to the West Bank. For the first time as president, he called for a two-state solution along the 1967 lines with agreed land swaps, but also said the ground was not ripe for restarting Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Biden made his remarks during a joint appearance in Bethlehem with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

“The Palestinian people are hurting now,” he said. “You can just feel it. Your grief and frustration. In the United States, we can feel it.”

He added that it was important for the Palestinians to have “a political horizon they can see.”

Biden refrained, however, from recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state, despite reportedly being urged to do so by the Palestinians.

He also called for the Palestinian Authority to reform the way it governs and combat corruption.

US President Joe Biden (L) is received by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, July 15, 2022. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

The speech was noticeably short on any firm commitment to advance the Palestinians’ political demands for an end to settlement expansion and the swift establishment of a Palestinian state.

Although he announced $316 million in financial assistance for the Palestinians during his visit, there was no announcement of a clear path to getting peace talks back on track.

“Even if the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on bringing the Palestinians and the Israelis, both sides, closer together,” he said.

“The Palestinian people deserve a state of their own that’s independent, sovereign, viable and contiguous,” said Biden, in a noticeable change from the Trump peace proposal which offered Palestinians only a semi-contiguous state while allowing Israel to hold onto all its settlements.

“Two states along the 1967 lines, with mutually agreed-to swaps, remain the best way to achieve an equal measure of security, prosperity, freedom and democracy for the Palestinians as well as Israelis,” he said.

US President Joe Biden (L) is received by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem in the West Bank on July 15, 2022. (AHMAD GHARABLI / AFP)

Biden also acknowledged the hardships faced by Palestinians in their daily lives, stating that he understood how the realization of a two-state solution seemed far away “when indignities like restrictions on movement and travel or the daily worry of your children’s safety are real and immediate.”

Regarding Jerusalem, Biden said it must be “a city for all its people, its holy sites preserving the status quo,” and with “the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan continuing to serve as custodian… We must all be free to practice our faiths in peace, in safety and in dignity.”

Biden was apparently referring in part to the Temple Mount — known as Haram al-Sharif or referred to as the Al-Aqsa compound by Muslims — Judaism’s holiest site and Islam’s third holiest.

Jews are allowed to visit the compound, but not pray or perform religious rituals, as part of the sensitive status quo. However, the Jordanians and Palestinians have complained of what they say is an erosion of the status quo at the holy site, with Israel turning a blind eye to Jewish prayer there.

Biden also announced that his administration would be providing an extra $200 million for UNRWA, the UN agency that supports Palestinian refugees, which he said would assist “the most vulnerable Palestinians,” and mentioned his pledge earlier in the day to give $100 million to Palestinian hospitals in East Jerusalem.

But he also insisted that the Palestinians themselves need to take steps “to improve governance, transparency and accountability” in order to “unleash the incredible potential of the Palestinian people.”

Biden specifically urged Abbas to “combat corruption and advance rights and freedoms, improve community services” in order to “build a society that can support a successful democratic future and a future Palestinian state.”

The US president also took the time to mention the recent killing of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, praising her for carrying out the “vital work of democracy,” and said the US would “continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death.”

Banners depicting slain Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh hang on a building overlooking the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem in the West Bank, on July 14, 2022 (Ahmad GHARABLI / AFP)

Abu Akleh was killed on May 11 while covering clashes between IDF soldiers and Palestinian gunmen. The Palestinian Authority said its investigation proved that the Al Jazeera journalist was intentionally targeted and killed by the IDF. Israel flatly rejected that claim as a blatant lie and also says there is not enough evidence to draw a definitive conclusion about who fired the fatal bullet.

After nearly two months, the PA agreed to hand over the bullet that killed Abu Akleh to US authorities, who proceeded to conduct a forensic examination. On July 4, the US State Department announced that the probe had been inconclusive because the bullet was too badly damaged. The US said Abu Akleh was likely shot from an Israeli position but that there was no evidence the killing was intentional.

Abu Akleh’s death has generated intense anger among Palestinians, and an empty chair bearing a picture of the slain journalist was placed among the seats reserved for reporters at the event, while some Palestinian journalists covering Friday’s event wore shirts with Abu Akleh’s image.

A photo of slain US-Palestinian Al Jazeera correspondent Shireen Abu Akleh, with a caption in Arabic reading ‘Shireen Abu Akleh, the voice of Palestine,’ is seen ahead of a joint press conference between the US and Palestinian Authority presidents in Bethlehem on July 15, 2022. (MANDEL NGAN / AFP)

The Biden administration has invited Abu Akleh’s family to Washington to “engage directly”; her relatives have expressed outrage over the US determination that she was not intentionally killed by the IDF.

Abbas, who spoke before Biden, denounced Israel in his statement, protesting what he said was Israel’s “racial discrimination and apartheid against our people.”

The Palestinian president urged an end to settlement expansion and settler violence, and condemned what he described as Israeli expulsion of Palestinians, demolitions of homes and “storming of cities.”

Abbas said it was time to “turn the page on the Israeli occupation on our land — the land of a Palestinian state with East Jerusalem as its capital.” He also said Israel “cannot continue to act as a state above the law.”

Abbas laid out specific demands for Biden, including for the US to reopen its consulate in East Jerusalem, to remove the PLO from the US terrorist list — “We are not terrorists,” he said — and to reopen the PLO office in Washington.

“We are ready to work in a framework of partnership and cooperation to achieve that,” continued Abbas, possibly hinting at a readiness to change his administration’s policy of paying monthly salaries to convicted Palestinian terrorists, so-called “pay for slay.”

Only with the establishment of a Palestinian state will “Israel be accepted to live in peace, security and good neighborhood with the countries of the region,” continued Abbas.

“The opportunity for a two-state solution on the 1967 borders may only be available today, we don’t know what will happen in the future,” the Palestinian leader warned.

“I take this opportunity to say I extend my hand to the leaders of Israel to make peace,” on the basis of the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative.

Biden was welcomed to Bethlehem by a pair of Palestinian children, who gave him a bouquet of flowers, and a band that played the US national anthem.

However, there was a small protest in the West Bank city, with demonstrators unhappy at what they view as a sidelining of Palestinians during the trip as well as the killing of Abu Akleh, the Guardian reported.

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)

Earlier in the day, Biden appeared at the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, which serves Palestinians, to discuss financial assistance for local health care. He proposed $100 million, which requires US congressional approval, in addition to $200 million for UNRWA, plus smaller amounts for other assorted programs.

Israel has also committed to upgrading wireless networks in the West Bank and Gaza, part of a broader effort to improve economic conditions. However, many Palestinian officials are not convinced it will happen.

“Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and dignity,” Biden said. “And access to health care, when you need it, is essential to living a life of dignity for all of us.”

When Biden finished speaking at the hospital, a woman who identified herself as a pediatric nurse at another health care facility thanked him for the financial assistance but said “we need more justice, more dignity.”

US President Joe Biden walks after a speech during a visit to the Augusta Victoria Hospital in Jerusalem on July 15, 2022. (Mandel NGAN / AFP)

Biden’s trip to the West Bank is being met with skepticism and bitterness among Palestinians who believe Biden has taken too few steps toward rejuvenating peace talks, especially after former president Donald Trump sidelined them while heavily favoring Israel.

The last serious round of negotiations aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state broke down more than a decade ago, leaving millions of Palestinians living under varying degrees of Israeli military control.

Israel’s outgoing government has taken steps to improve economic conditions in the West Bank and Gaza. But Yair Lapid, the caretaker prime minister, does not have a mandate to hold peace negotiations, and November 1 elections could bring to power a right-wing government that is opposed to Palestinian statehood.

Meanwhile, the 86-year-old Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority administers parts of the West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security, is more representative of the status quo than Palestinian aspirations.

His Fatah party lost an election, and control of Gaza, to the Islamic terror group Hamas more than 15 years ago. He called off the first national elections since then last year — blaming Israel — when Fatah appeared to be heading for another crushing defeat. Polls over the past year have consistently found that nearly 80% of Palestinians want him to resign.

Biden acknowledged this week that while he supports a two-state solution, it won’t happen “in the near term.” The US also appears to have accepted defeat in its more modest push to reopen a Jerusalem consulate serving the Palestinians that was closed when Trump recognized the contested city as Israel’s capital.

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

Palestinian leaders also fear being further undermined by the Abraham Accords, a diplomatic vehicle for Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel despite the continuing occupation. Biden, who heads next to Saudi Arabia to attend a summit of Arab leaders, hopes to broaden that process, which began under Trump.

Hours before Biden was set to become the first US leader to fly directly from Israel to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation announced early Friday “the decision to open the Kingdom’s airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements of the Authority for overflying.”

It signaled the end of its longstanding ban on Israeli flights overflying its territory — an incremental step toward the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel that builds on the strong, but informal ties the erstwhile foes have developed in recent years over their shared concerns about Iran’s growing influence in the region.

Biden hailed the decision in a statement Friday as an important step to “help build momentum toward Israel’s further integration into the region.”

There’s been hardly any mention of the Palestinians over the past two days, as Biden has showered Israel with praise, holding it up as a democracy that shares American values. At a news conference with Biden, Lapid evoked the US civil rights movement to portray Israel as a bastion of freedom.

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