Israel was prepared to turn US President Joe Biden’s visit to an East Jerusalem hospital into a major diplomatic event because of Washington’s refusal to allow any Israeli officials to attend, a senior administration official revealed to The Times of Israel.
The tour of Augusta Victoria Hospital last Friday was the first time a US president set foot in East Jerusalem, outside the Old City. Israel saw the visit as a political statement by the administration aimed at recognizing Palestinian ties to the Palestinian majority of the capital.
As a result, it tried for months to convince the United States to allow Israeli government officials to attend the visit to demonstrate that East Jerusalem is part of its undivided capital, the senior Biden administration official explained in a conversation held over several days after the President’s statement. trip to the region.
But the US rejected the repeated efforts, arguing that Biden’s visit was not a political statement, but rather about promoting health care for all.
In his remarks at Augusta Victoria, Biden focused largely on that point, saying a new US donation of $100 million to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network was “part of our commitment to support health and dignity [for] the Palestinian people.”
However, Israel remained unconvinced ahead of the president’s trip about the administration’s intentions, and for about two months, officials from the highest levels of government in Jerusalem had been reaching out to their American counterparts — pleading that Israeli representatives be allowed to accompany Biden, it said senior US official. The official added that the effort began during Naftali Bennett’s tenure as prime minister but continued after he was replaced by Yair Lapid on July 1, and even included phone calls from former senior Israeli officials to the US embassy in Jerusalem.
Several weeks before the president’s arrival, the United States sent an advance team to Israel to prepare for the trip. The team’s schedule included a stop at Augusta Victoria to finalize the details of the visit. But they were met on arrival there by a pair of representatives from Israel’s Health Ministry who tried to “crash” the meeting, the senior administration said. The representatives insisted that their attendance had been approved by the US Embassy, although the latter had never given such permission.
Just days before the visit, the Israeli government made the “strategic decision” to allow it to go ahead without one of its representatives present, the US official said.
The official claimed that while the president avoided any political statements regarding East Jerusalem, the decision to stop in that part of the city was “intentional,” without elaborating further.
Ripple effects of Trump’s Jerusalem policy
America’s position on Jerusalem figured prominently in the planning of Biden’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which took place in Bethlehem immediately after the stop at Augusta Victoria.
Biden and Abbas’ offices first sought to have the two leaders issue a joint statement after the meeting that would highlight areas of US-Palestinian agreement regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the administration said.
Washington drafted a version that was sent to Ramallah for approval. The PA returned the statement with edits that went much further than the Biden administration was willing to go. In a last-ditch effort to reach a compromise, the White House asked Abbas’ office what its red line was for the statement, and Ramallah replied that it must include recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
The administration official explained that the United States would not be able to make such a declaration because it would violate the proclamation signed by former President Donald Trump, which recognized Jerusalem as Israel’s capital while maintaining that the specific boundaries of Israeli sovereignty would be “subject to final status negotiations between the parties.”
Realizing that the United States would not be able to move forward on the matter, Abbas’s office suggested that the two presidents simply issue separate statements at the conclusion of the meeting.
Biden went on – for the first time as president – to express support for a two-state solution based on the pre-1967 lines, with agreed land swaps, in a subtle nod to the Palestinian claim to East Jerusalem.
But he sufficed to say that Jerusalem “must be a city for all its people”, with the status quo maintained in its holy places.
Abbas, on the other hand, specified that a peace deal would require “the end of the Israeli occupation of our land, the land of the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, at the 1967 borders.”
In both the public comments and the private meeting, Abbas Biden pressed the PA’s longstanding demand that the administration follow through on promises to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO’s diplomatic office in Washington, as well as scrap a 1987 congressional law that characterizes the PLO and its affiliates as terrorist organizations.
“We are not terrorists,” Abbas told Biden during their public remarks.
Biden ‘honest’ about what he can deliver to the PA
In the closed-door meeting, Biden was “honest about what he would be able to do,” the senior administration said, without going so far as to explicitly say the president told Abbas that reopening the consulate would not be possible because of Israeli opposition.
To discuss the issue of the PLO office in Washington, representatives from the newly created US Office of Palestinian Affairs were asked to explain what the PA would have to do to allow the reopening. Abbas was told that U.S. law would require him to drop efforts against Israel at the International Criminal Court along with ceasing efforts to join U.N. agencies and become a U.N. member state — a particularly difficult pill for Ramallah to swallow, given that the P.A. — the president asked Biden during the meeting about his support for the latter effort, the administration official acknowledged.
If they were to promise to roll back those initiatives, the White House would consider signing a waiver that would allow the temporary reopening of the PLO office, the U.S. official said, adding that the waiver process could be scrapped altogether if Ramallah followed through on those pledges.
Abbas was also told during the meeting that scrapping the 1987 law would require the PA to reform its welfare policies, which include payments to security detainees who carried out attacks against Israelis along with the families of slain attackers, another senior administration official said.
Ramallah has expressed a willingness to reform the policy in closed-door meetings, including most recently with Biden, and has drawn up a proposal that would see payments to prisoners based on financial need, rather than the length of their prison terms as is now the case. case, two Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel last year. However, the reform has never been implemented.
Nevertheless, the other senior administration official said they “found the general mood in Bethlehem to be quite constructive, compared to where things stood a month ago.” By then, Abbas had met with a US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Barbara Leaf, and said he was prepared to cut security ties with Israel because of the latter’s actions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The senior US official indicated that Abbas had since stepped down from that post as a result of the president’s visit and the series of steps aimed at improving the economy and livelihoods of Palestinians under Israeli control.
These steps included the announcement of 4G cell phone access for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, extending the hours at the Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan to 24/7, and reconvening the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Economic Committee.
But these are measures that have been announced before by Israel and have never been implemented. The first senior US official to speak to The Times of Israel acknowledged that the Biden administration will have to follow up with Jerusalem on these steps to ensure they are seen through this time.
The official added that the White House plans to look at what it can do to advance contacts between Lapid and Abbas going forward. The two leaders spoke days before Biden’s visit in what was the first such conversation between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in five years.
Lapid told French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this month that he would not rule out the possibility of meeting Abbas in person, although there were no immediate plans for such a meeting to take place. His office has previously claimed it does not want to meet with Abbas without a clear agenda for fear of raising Palestinian expectations unnecessarily.
Abbas’s office and Israel’s Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment for this report.