Inside story

‘It’s a two-way street’: PA warns of fallout from US holdup of consulate reopening

Palestinian officials tell ToI Ramallah can’t be expected to follow through on key asks, such as reform of prisoner payment policy, when Biden isn’t living up to his promises

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

Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Joe Biden after their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday, March 10, 2010. (AP/Bernat Armangue)
Mahmoud Abbas, left, and Joe Biden after their meeting in the West Bank city of Ramallah, Wednesday, March 10, 2010. (AP/Bernat Armangue)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The Palestinian Authority will refuse to meet key US demands for reforms unless Washington follows through on its own commitments to fully restore ties with Ramallah, PA officials have told The Times of Israel.

The dispute centers around the possible shelving of plans to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem, and comes as the PA has grown increasingly frustrated with US President Joe Biden’s approach to the long-dormant Mideast peace process.

According to three Palestinian officials who spoke to The Times of Israel over the past month, Ramallah may respond by nixing reforms sought by the Biden administration, including changes to payments it makes to Palestinian security prisoners who have carried out attacks against Israelis.

“There needs to be a realization that when they don’t keep these promises, we cannot be expected to respond positively to their far-reaching demands either,” said one senior Palestinian official, who requested anonymity to speak on the matter.

“It’s a two-way street,” the senior official said.

Palestinians see the reopened US consulate as a key part of mending ties with the US. The mission served as the de facto representative office to the Palestinians before it was shuttered by former US president Donald Trump in 2019.

But amid strong pushback from Israel and a foreign policy agenda weighed down by other issues, the Biden administration has effectively shelved plans to reopen the consulate, sources told The Times of Israel last month.

Chief among the reforms that Ramallah may now abort as a result are plans to alter the stipends paid out to Palestinians serving time in Israeli prison for security offenses, or the families of Palestinians killed by Israeli forces, including while carrying out terror attacks.

Asked whether planned reforms to the prisoner payment system would fall victim to the tit-for-tat war of unfulfilled demands between Washington and Ramallah, the senior Palestinian official responded, “it very well could.”

Critics of the policy in the US and Israel argue that it incentivizes terror, dubbing it “pay-for-slay.” To many Palestinians though, solidarity with those imprisoned for various acts of protest against Israeli rule, including violence, is a key tenet of the national movement. The payments are also seen as a crucial form of welfare for families where the breadwinner is imprisoned in what they view as an unjust military system.

PA officials have told their American counterparts that they were prepared to reform the policy and established a committee responsible for crafting the policy change.

However, no breakthrough has been reached, even after a year of talks.

Relatives of Palestinians held in Israeli jails hold their portraits during a protest to mark “Prisoners Day” in the West Bank city of Ramallah, April 7, 2019. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

In addition to reforming its welfare policy, the Biden administration has also urged the PA to withdraw the probe it requested the International Criminal Court open into alleged war crimes committed by Israel and the Palestinians since the lead-up to 2014 Gaza War.

While it is unclear whether Ramallah would even be able to take such a step as the ICC investigation has already been opened, PA officials have indicated that they are not prepared to heed the demand.

Visiting US officials have also raised with Palestinian leaders concerns regarding the issue of human rights, particularly after the June killing of activist Nizar Banat while in PA police custody.

For its part, Ramallah has asked that Biden nullify the Anti-Terrorism Act of 1987, which labels as “terror groups” the Palestinian Liberation Liberation “and its affiliates.”

The Congressional legislation is viewed as a major hurdle preventing the reopening of the PLO diplomatic mission in Washington, which was also shuttered by Trump. The reopening was another campaign promise of Biden’s.

The Washington office of the Palestine Liberation Organization, November 18, 2017. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon, File)

Ramallah has also for months been requesting an in-person meeting between Biden and PA President Mahmoud Abbas, Palestinian officials confirmed. It took five months from his January 2021 inauguration for Biden to take a call from the Palestinian leader; Israeli premier Naftali Bennett met Biden in Washington in August.

Biden officials say a meeting with Abbas will take place eventually, but have avoided providing a timetable.

“The US is saying the right thing about Israelis and Palestinians deserving ‘equal measures of freedom, dignity, security and prosperity,'” a second Palestinian official said, referring to a favorite Biden administration talking point on the conflict. “But between that and actions is an abyss.”

Still better than Trump

The Palestinian officials who spoke to The Times of Israel emphasized that there still is a great deal of appreciation for Biden’s moves to restore US ties with the PA, along with hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to the Palestinians.

“There’s sincere gratitude for the restored aid and for bringing back the rhetoric of a two-state solution, but there also needs to be action. The consulate [reopening] was supposed to be part of that action,” said one Palestinian diplomat.

US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan insisted during a visit last month that the Biden administration still intends to reopen the Jerusalem mission, but three sources familiar with the matter told The Times of Israel that no plan has been crafted for how to make good on the promise.

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)

Israel has vociferously opposed the reopening of the consulate, saying it will undermine its sovereignty over Jerusalem as the US already has its embassy in the city, and the White House has shown little appetite for getting further tangled up in the region.

Yet even with Ramallah’s frustration, “there is no comparison to what we went through under Trump,” the Palestinian diplomat said. They pointed to significant Biden administration criticism of Israeli settlement approvals, settler violence and IDF home demolitions, which was not voiced during the Trump era.

There appeared to be real euphoria in Ramallah after Biden’s election in November 2020, though Palestinian officials claim it had more to do with Trump’s defeat.

“We were well aware of Biden’s history and that he is closer to (the more moderate) Hillary Clinton than (the more progressive) Bernie Sanders,” said one Palestinian source close to Abbas’s office.

The well-placed Palestinian source insisted that expectations of Biden are “much more realistic,” adding that Ramallah was not surprised by the reported shelving of the consulate reopening, as “this had been clear for months.”

Despite Ramallah’s disappointment, the source noted that there was optimism that a meeting last week between Abbas and Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz could be used as a launching pad for increased Israeli-Palestinian cooperation, where a US role would be critical.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in the West Bank city of Ramallah, December 22, 2021. (Wafa)

But Bennett and Foreign Minister Yair Lapid — slated to rotate into the premiership next year — have rejected direct peace talks with the Palestinians, and a third Palestinian official said the Gantz-Abbas summit was not a reason in of itself for optimism, particularly regarding the US role.

“The US is saying the right thing about Israelis and Palestinians deserving ‘equal measures of freedom, dignity, security and prosperity,'” the official said, referring to a favorite Biden administration talking point on the conflict. “But between that and actions is an abyss.”

“We need to start creating a political horizon,” the official added.

But according to the senior Palestinian official, Sullivan told Abbas last month that no major peace initiative was in the works.

Asked for comment on the report during a Tuesday press briefing, US State Department spokesman Ned Price said, “It is undeniable that this administration has re-engaged with the Palestinian people and re-engaged with the Palestinian leadership to advance that goal of providing equal measures of security, prosperity, and freedom for the Palestinian people.”

“We have done that through our humanitarian leadership… that we have demonstrated through multiple channels… The diplomacy that we have exerted in the context of the Gaza conflict last year certainly led to a shorter duration of the conflict, and it helped to lead down the path of rebuilding for the Palestinian people. We will continue to find ways to seek to make real this belief that Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve equal measures of these concepts, and we’ll continue to do that in the days and weeks and months ahead,” he added.

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