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August 18, 2022 7:42 pm

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Michael Novakhov - In My Opinion

Biden visits Palestinians, Abbas ahead of Saudi trip

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JERUSALEM — President Biden, devoting the last hours of his Israeli visit to restoring the ties with Palestinians severed by predecessor, visited a Palestinian hospital Friday in East Jerusalem before crossing into the West Bank for a meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

The White House announced $316 million in new aid for Palestinians, including $100 million for a hospital network that serves patients from the West Bank and Gaza. Another $200 million will go to the United Nations agency that supports Palestinian refugees, funding that was largely eliminated by Trump. Biden, who has pledged to renew support for Palestinians, began restoring Washington’s contribution soon after taking office.

The administration also announced $15 million in emergency aid to help the territories during grain shortages caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as well as an initiative to speed the rollout of 4G technology in the West Bank and Gaza.

“It’s an honor to see first hand the quality of care you provide to the Palestinian people,” Biden said after touring Augusta Victoria Hospital, the leading advanced-care facility available to residents of the East Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza, most of whom need Israeli permission to travel there.

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“Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and dignity,” the president said, announcing the new hospital funding. “And access to health care when you need it is essential to leading a life of dignity.”

The president’s meetings with Palestinians follows two days of warm embraces from Israeli officials, during which Biden made his support for the Jewish state clear and laid claim to the label of “Zionist.”

His reception on the other side of the security wall has been less enthusiastic, reflecting disappointment that Biden hasn’t done more to pressure Israel to resume peace talks and improve its treatment of Palestinians under occupation.

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Some protesters in Ramallah held up “Biden Go Home” posters during a demonstration Thursday. An Israeli advocacy group, B’Tselem, mounted billboards near the 26-foot-high separation wall in Bethlehem reading “Mr. President, This is Apartheid,” a characterization Biden has rejected.

Biden has affirmed his support for a peace agreement that would end the Israeli occupation and create an independent Palestine, but has also made clear that conditions aren’t there for progress toward those goals. He once indicated his intention to reopen the U.S. Consulate in East Jerusalem, but has so far hasn’t in the face of Israeli objections.

The president condemned a string of terrorist attacks that killed 15 in Israel last spring, but he did not publicly mention two Palestinian Americans who died during encounters with the Israeli military in the West Bank in recent months: An elderly man who died after being left in the cold at roadblock and Shireen Abu Akleh, an Al Jazeera journalist shot during an Israeli raid. The U.S. has accepted findings that the shot was most likely fired by an Israeli soldier.

Palestinians don’t see Biden as their champion, according to pollsters.

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“Palestinians see it as a positive thing that this president has restored some of the funding and talks to Palestinian leaders, but overall the feeling about this trip and the last year and half is one of disappointment,” said Khalil Shikaki, a pollster and director of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research. “The hope that he would be very different from Trump has faded. Now they see him as only slightly different.”

Palestinians are waiting for Biden to put pressure on both Israel — to curtail settlements, ease the Gaza blockade and other reforms — and Abbas himself, who has refused to hold elections since he took office in 2005. With the progressive wing of the Democratic Party increasingly aligning with Palestinian causes, many here expected Biden to engage with the conflict more than he has.

“He’s not even doing as much as Obama did,” said Shikaki. “That they can’t even do something as small and symbolic as opening the consulate is seen as a real lack of courage or will or ability.”

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Some Palestinians see Biden’s events in the West Bank, slotted between his days in Israel and his departure for Saudi Arabia, as a footnote to his real priority: deepening Israel’s ties with other Arab nations in the region.

The Saudi government announced Friday that it was opening its airspace to Israeli commercial flights, ending a traditional blockade that will save hours on flights between Israel and parts of Asia. Biden and Israeli officials hailed the shift as a step toward the kind of formal relations with Israel that Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and other Arab states have embraced, despite the lack of progress toward Palestinian statehood.