Itinerary: Palestinians will get the pop-in treatment and little else from Biden trip
The White House announced that President Joe Biden would visit Israel, the West Bank, and Saudi Arabia from July 13 to 16, and laid out a framework for the agendas of each planned stop.
It should come as no surprise that the meetings with Israel and Saudi Arabia will focus on very specific subjects, while the meetings with Palestinian leaders will cover more general topics. A White House spokesperson said that Biden and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas would discuss “the ways in which we might rekindle a new political horizon that can ensure equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and dignity to Israelis and Palestinians alike.”
That description sounds more like a phone call than a meeting, and it reflects the fact that the United States, like its allies in the region, have no idea what to do about the plight of the Palestinians, and really wish the issue could be ignored.
The absence of any substantial motion on Palestinian rights during Biden’s tenure is glaring. The few moves the United States has made since January 2021 have largely been aimed at simply restoring communication between Ramallah and Washington, which was shattered by Donald Trump. The administration has accomplished that much but virtually nothing else, and even the re-established lines of communication are tense and cold. Biden is not prioritizing the Palestinians, and the Palestinian Authority has grown frustrated.
Biden had committed to reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which served as the point of contact for American and Palestinian leaders for over 170 years before Donald Trump shut it down and used the site for the relocated U.S. embassy in Jerusalem. As I explained in December, Biden’s promise was foolhardy, as opening a consulate is a much more complicated affair than closing one if the host country (in this case, Israel) is not amenable to the move.
Biden has tried to mollify the Palestinians by signaling that his administration is planning to upgrade the Palestinian Affairs Unit — the diplomatic mission to the Palestinian leadership which was downgraded as a department within the Israeli embassy by Trump — to a higher status that would report directly to the State Department rather than through the embassy.
The PA was not impressed by the news. In a meeting last weekend with State Department officials to discuss preparations for Biden’s trip, their representatives reiterated the demand that Biden reopen the consulate. They also reaffirmed their demand that the Palestine Liberation Organization’s (PLO) designation as a foreign terrorist organization be removed. This was another promise Biden made that was easier said than done.
Since 1997, the State Department has maintained a list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations (FTO). But in 1987, it was Congress that stuck the “terrorist” label on the PLO. This was part of the pushback against moves the Ronald Reagan administration was making to explore talks with the PLO. A year later, Reagan would open talks with the PLO, using a presidential waiver that Congress provided. That waiver was invoked by every successive president until Trump declined to do so in 2019, forcing the PLO to close its Washington offices.
Complicating the matter of reopening that office is the fact that a 2018 law called the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act (ATCA) would cause the Palestinians to be liable for at least $655 million in damages from lawsuits over the years. The U.S. would only have the right to demand those funds under certain circumstances, one of which is having official Palestinian offices in the United States.
Whether the Biden administration knew about these complications when it made its promises to the Palestinians or not, the promises were made and the Palestinians expect Biden to make good on them. Indeed, from the Palestinian perspective, these demands represent a radical lowering of expectations from the days where they hoped the United States would actively pressure Israel into taking significant steps toward a two-state solution.
Biden’s hands are not completely tied, but he is not taking steps that he could take. For example, a bill currently in the House of Representatives could go a long way to enabling the sort of steps the Palestinians are hoping for.
The “Two-State Solution Bill” was introduced back in September by Andy Levin (D-Mich.) and has many provisions that would seem to line up perfectly with Biden’s stated policies. One of those provisions is the removal of the terrorist designation from the PLO if it is declared to be in compliance with another bill, the Taylor Force Act, which demands the PA end financial support to families of Palestinians convicted of terrorist attacks against Israelis.
Levin’s bill would, according to the congressman, allow for the reopening of the PLO office in Washington. It would also demonstrate that the administration had Congressional backing for reopening the consulate. The bill has 47 co-sponsors, and support from a wide range of groups that are important to Biden and the Democrats, including J Street, Americans for Peace Now, Foreign Policy for America, Oxfam America and others. Biden’s support would greatly enhance that base.
Yet, Biden has ignored the bill. How can Palestinians possibly look at this and believe their concerns are being taken seriously?
In fact, they can’t, and while Biden’s upcoming trip will give Abbas and other Palestinian leaders another chance to plead their case, the trip is likely to end with the Palestinians in an even worse political position.
In Israel, Biden will do the usual formal meetings, but will also attend a virtual summit of the new I2U2 grouping of India, Israel, the UAE and the U.S. This new group will, according to U.S. officials, start developing a framework for dealing with food security in the Middle East and Asia. But more militaristic security concerns are sure to be a major focus, and will present some very specific challenges to the UAE, given the strained status quo between Israel and the Palestinians and the recent Indian government attacks on its own Muslim minority.
The Saudis, for their part, remain reluctant to fully normalize with Israel without some accommodation for the Palestinians. Still, it is unknown whether that resolve will outlast King Salman, and his son, Mohammed, is now in practical charge of the kingdom. The Saudis are already getting much of what they want from Israel, as the Abraham Accords are quickly leading to the anti-Iran military bloc they crave. Pressing the Palestinian case is not on MBS’ agenda.
Biden’s trip will, at best, leave the Palestinians with a few symbolic gains, but a clear message that, in practice, nothing is going to change in the foreseeable future. Biden has made promises he was never going to be willing or able to keep, given his aversion to even the mildest challenges. And, politically, with midterms looming and his approval ratings very low, he is not going to take steps now for the Palestinians. This trip is all about Saudi Arabia and Israel, and, in Washington’s mind, the Palestinians are more a nuisance than a cause for concern.