South Asian Insider
Opinion and Editorial
Joe Biden heads to West Bank, with little beyond money to offer Palestinians
The US president is expected to announce $316 million in financial assistance - about a third of which will require Congressional approval - and a commitment from Israel to modernise wireless access for Palestinians
(SAI Bureau)When President Joe Biden heads to the occupied West Bank on Friday for talks with Palestinian leaders, he will have little to offer beyond US money aimed at buying calm. He's expected to announce $316 million in financial assistance — about a third of which will require congressional approval — and a commitment from Israel to modernize wireless access for Palestinians. But although Biden will reiterate his support for an independent Palestinian state, there's no clear path to one. The last round of serious peace talks broke down more than a decade ago, leaving millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule.
Israel's outgoing government has taken steps to improve economic conditions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But Yair Lapid, the caretaker prime minister, does not have a mandate to hold peace negotiations, and Nov. 1 elections could bring to power a right-wing government that is opposed to Palestinian statehood. Meanwhile, the 86-year-old President Mahmoud Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority administers parts of the occupied 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 militant 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 per cent 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 President Donald Trump recognized the contested city as Israel's capital. 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 the kingdom, 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.
"President Biden welcomes and commends the historic decision by the leadership of Saudi Arabia to open Saudi airspace to all civilian carriers without discrimination, a decision that includes flights to and from Israel," said US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan in a statement early Friday. 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 press conference with Biden, Lapid evoked the US civil rights movement to portray Israel as a bastion of freedom. It all reeked of hypocrisy to Palestinians, who have endured 55 years of military occupation with no end in sight.
"The idea of shared values actually makes me sick to my stomach," said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and political analyst. "I don't think Israeli values are anything that people should be striving towards." Both Biden and Lapid said they supported an eventual two-state solution in order to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish-majority state. But Biden is expected to announce little beyond financial assistance, including $201 million for the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees. Biden proposed $100 million, subject to congressional approval, for hospitals in east Jerusalem that serve Palestinians. Another $15 million is for humanitarian assistance, plus $7.2 million for programs to promote cooperation between Israelis and Palestinians. His approach, often referred to as "economic peace," has limitations.
"You can't buy a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict," said Aaron David Miller, a senior fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former US State Department official. "It doesn't work, because that's not what drives this conflict."
That sentiment was on display in the West Bank on Thursday, where dozens of Palestinians gathered to protest Biden. More protests were expected Friday.
"Mr. Biden is trying to marginalize the Palestinian issue," said Mustafa Barghouti, a veteran Palestinian activist. "If he does not allow Palestinians to have their rights, then he is helping Israel kill and end the very last possibility of peace." At this point, the Palestinian goal of an independent state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — territories Israel seized in the 1967 Mideast war — appears more distant than ever.
Israel is expanding settlements in annexed east Jerusalem and the West Bank, which are now home to some 700,000 Jewish settlers. The Palestinian view the settlements — many of which resemble sprawling suburbs — as the main obstacle to peace, because they carve up the land on which a Palestinian state would be established. Most of the world considers them illegal. Military rule in the West Bank has sown widespread despair, contributing to a recent wave of violence. A 15-year blockade of Gaza, which Israel says is needed to contain Hamas, has helped fuel four devastating wars. Jerusalem, home to famed holy sites and the emotional heart of the conflict, is as volatile as ever.
Israel has its own grievances — including Palestinian Authority payments to the families of prisoners and slain attackers, which Israel says incentivize violence. The PA defends the payments as a form of welfare for those it sees as victims of the conflict. It's unclear if eliminating the "martyrs' fund" would advance the goal of statehood. Israel is dominated by nationalist and religious parties that are opposed to a Palestinian state and view the West Bank as the biblical and historical heartland of the Jewish people.
Well-known human rights groups have concluded that Israel's seemingly permanent control over millions of Palestinians amounts to apartheid. One of those groups, Israel's own B'Tselem, hung banners in the West Bank ahead of Biden's visit. Israel rejects that label as an attack on its very existence, even though two former Israeli prime ministers warned years ago that their country would be seen that way if it did not reach a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. The US also rejects the apartheid allegations. Biden will also likely see banners calling for justice for Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli military raid in the West Bank in May. Israel says she might have been struck by Palestinian gunfire, while investigations by The Associated Press and other media outlets support Palestinian witnesses who say she was shot by Israeli forces.
The US says she was likely killed by Israeli troops but that it appeared to be unintentional, without saying how it reached those conclusions. That angered many Palestinians, including Abu Akleh's family, who accused the US of trying to help Israel evade responsibility for her death.
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