During his brief visit to East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Joe Biden was met by small groups of protesters and billboards decrying Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories as apartheid, signs of dissatisfaction with the president’s dismissal of the Palestinian quest for statehood during his Middle East tour.
On Friday morning, the president paid a visit to Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem, where he promised $300 million (£250 million) in aid to Palestinians, before riding in a convoy to Bethlehem to meet Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and visit the Church of the Nativity.
On Friday afternoon, Air Force One will make its first direct flight from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia, where the president hopes to persuade Gulf hydrocarbon producers to increase supply in order to calm global oil markets shaken by the Ukraine conflict. He will also seek to strengthen Israel’s nascent political ties with Arab countries, with whom it shares a common foe in Iran.
“Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity, and dignity,” he said in a speech at the Palestinian hospital complex.
Joe Biden promises $300m in aid amid anger in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem.
“Having access to healthcare when you need it is critical to living a dignified life for all of us.”
Monetary pledges, on the other hand, have done little to dispel Palestinian fears that the US has lost interest in their cause: This week, Biden stated that he does not believe peace is possible “in the near term.”
He has also failed to keep a promise to reopen a US mission in East Jerusalem that was closed by Donald Trump, who defied decades of diplomatic convention by declaring the divided city to be Israel’s capital. Trump also strongly supported Israel’s right wing, which is opposed to Palestinian statehood.
Despite a marked change in rhetoric following Trump’s presidency, the Palestinian public and leadership have expressed outrage at the new administration’s failure to curb either Israeli settlement building or settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank.
A few dozen protesters carried Palestinian flags and posters with the image of Shireen Abu Aqleh, the Palestinian-American journalist killed by Israeli fire two months ago, which the US has determined was an accident.
The Israeli rights group B’Tselem erected billboards and digital screens in Bethlehem that read, “Mr President, this is apartheid” – a claim made by several major human rights organizations in the last year but rejected by Israel as a threat to its existence.
When Biden finished speaking at the hospital, a woman identified as a paediatric nurse thanked him for the financial assistance but added, “We need more justice, more dignity,” while Palestinian journalists waiting to cover Biden’s press conference in Bethlehem wore black T-shirts that read, “Justice for Shireen.”
Although the president reaffirmed the US’s support for a two-state solution to the conflict during his three-day visit to Israel and the territories, the visit was largely focused on the threat posed by Iran’s growing military capabilities to Israel and its new Arab allies.
The “Jerusalem declaration,” signed on Wednesday by Biden and Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid, offered little to the Palestinians other than a pledge from Israel to improve the economic conditions and quality of life for the 5 million people living in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The last serious round of talks aimed at ending Israel’s 55-year-old military occupation collapsed more than a decade ago, and Lapid, who became interim leader after Israel’s short-lived coalition government collapsed last month, lacks the mandate to restart peace talks. Polls indicate that Israel may elect its most right-wing government to date in elections scheduled for November 1, making the peace process even less likely.
Palestinian leaders are also concerned about being undermined further by the Abraham accords, which were facilitated by the Trump administration despite the ongoing occupation.
During his visit to the Saudi city of Jeddah, Biden will advocate for fully integrating Israel into the emerging regional defense architecture against Iran.
The Middle East’s geopolitical heavyweight, Saudi Arabia, does not formally recognize Israel’s existence. However, in a small sign of a tentative new relationship between the two countries, Riyadh announced “the decision to open the kingdom’s airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements for overflying” before Biden’s flight on Friday, signaling the end of a long-standing ban on Israeli flights over its territory.
Biden defended his decision to re-engage with Saudi Arabia after labeling the country a “global pariah” following the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
On Thursday, the president stated that he will not avoid human rights issues on the final leg of his Middle East tour, despite his refusal to commit to mentioning the murder when he meets with the kingdom’s crown prince.