How Israel nearly turned Biden’s visit to East Jerusalem into a diplomatic incident

Israel was ready to turn US President Joe Biden’s visit to an East Jerusalem hospital into a major diplomatic incident over Washington’s refusal to allow any Israeli official to join, a senior administration official has revealed at The Times of Israel.

Last Friday’s visit to Augusta Victoria Hospital marked the first time a US president has set foot in East Jerusalem outside of the Old City. Israel viewed the visit as a political statement by the administration aimed at recognizing Palestinian ties to the predominantly Palestinian part of the capital.

As a result, he tried for months to convince the United States to allow Israeli government officials to attend the visit in order to demonstrate that East Jerusalem is part of its undivided capital, the senior Israeli official explained. Biden administration in a conversation held several days after the president’s decision. trip to the region.

But the United States has pushed back against repeated efforts, saying Biden’s visit was not a political statement, but rather about promoting health care for all.

In his remarks to Augusta Victoria, Biden largely focused on that point, saying a new US$100 million donation to the East Jerusalem hospital network was “part of our commitment to supporting health and dignity.” . [for] the Palestinian people”.

However, Israel remained skeptical ahead of the president’s trip about the administration’s intentions and for about two months officials at the highest levels of government in Jerusalem contacted their American counterparts – pleading that Israeli officials be allowed to accompany Biden. , the senior US official said, adding 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 senior Israeli officials at the US Embassy in Jerusalem.

Visitors exit Augusta Victoria Hospital ahead of US President Joe Biden’s visit to East Jerusalem on Monday, July 11, 2022. (AP Photo/Mahmoud Illean)

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 in Augusta Victoria to finalize the details of the visit. But they were met upon arrival by two representatives of Israel’s Health Ministry who sought to “crush” the meeting, the senior administration official said. The representatives insisted that their presence had been approved by the United States Embassy, ​​even though the latter had never granted such authorization.

Just days before the visit, the Israeli government made the “strategic decision” to allow him to move forward without the presence of one of its representatives, the US official said.

The official maintained that while the president avoided making political statements regarding East Jerusalem, the decision to stop in that part of the city was “intentional”, without giving further details.

Protesters wave Palestinian flags as Israeli police stand by, near Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem during a visit by US President Joe Biden, Friday, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Maya Alleruzzo)

Ripple effects of Trump’s Jerusalem policy

The US stance on Jerusalem figured prominently in planning for Biden’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which took place in Bethlehem immediately following the stop at Augusta Victoria.

Biden and Abbas’s offices initially sought to have the two leaders issue a joint statement following their meeting that would highlight areas of US-Palestinian agreement regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the official said. ‘administration.

Washington drafted a version which was sent to Ramallah for approval. The AP returned the statement with edits that went far beyond what the Biden administration was willing to do. In a last-ditch effort to reach a compromise, the White House asked Abbas’ office what his red line was for the statement, and Ramallah replied that it should include recognition of East Jerusalem as the capital of a future state. Palestinian.

The administration official explained that the United States would not be able to make such a statement because it would violate the proclamation signed by former President Donald Trump, which recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel while maintaining that the specific limits of Israeli sovereignty would be “subject to final decision”. status negotiations between the parties.

Realizing that the United States would not be able to move forward on the issue, Abbas’ office suggested that the two presidents simply issue separate statements at the end of their meeting.

Biden went on – for the first time as president – ​​to voice support for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 lines, with agreed land swaps, in a subtle nod to grievances Palestinians in East Jerusalem.

US President Joe Biden, left, listens to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ speech during a joint statement in the West Bank city of Bethlehem, July 15, 2022. (AP Photo/Majdi Mohammed)

But he contented himself with saying that Jerusalem “must be a city for all its people”, with the status quo maintained at its holy places.

Abbas, on the other hand, clarified that a peace agreement would require “ending the Israeli occupation of our land, the land of the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on the 1967 borders.” .

In public remarks and at the private meeting, Abbas insisted on the PA’s long-standing demands that the administration honor its promises to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO’s diplomatic office in Washington, D.C. in addition to removing a 1987 congressional act that labels the PLO and its affiliates as terrorist organizations.

“We are not terrorists,” Abbas told Biden during their public remarks.

Palestinian security forces stand guard as two Palestinian boys wave national flags during a protest in Bethlehem in the West Bank during the visit of US President Joe Biden on July 15, 2022 (ABBAS MOMANI / AFP)

Biden ‘honest’ on what he can deliver to AP

In the closed-door meeting, Biden was “honest about what he would be able to do,” the senior administration official said, skimping so far as to say explicitly that the president had told Abbas that the reopening of the consulate would not be possible due to Israeli opposition.

To discuss the issue of the PLO office in Washington, representatives of the new US Office of Palestinian Affairs were called in to explain what the PA should do to allow it to reopen. Abbas was told that US law would require him to drop his efforts against Israel at the International Criminal Court as well as cease his efforts to join UN agencies and become a UN member state – a particularly pill hard for Ramallah to swallow, given that the PA president asked Biden during the meeting for his support in this latest effort, the administration official acknowledged.

If they were to commit to rescinding these initiatives, the White House would consider signing a waiver that would allow the temporary reopening of the PLO office, the US official said, adding that the waiver process could be abandoned entirely if Ramallah followed suit. these pledges.

Abbas was also told at the meeting that scrapping the 1987 law would force the PA to reform its social policy, which includes payments to security prisoners who have carried out attacks on Israelis as well as the families of prisoners. attackers killed, said a second senior administration official.

The office of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in Washington, DC, on November 21, 2017. (AFP/SAUL LOEB)

Ramallah expressed his willingness to reform the policy in closed meetings, including the latest with Biden, and drafted a proposal that prisoner payments would be based on financial need, rather than length of prison. prison sentence as is currently the case. the case, two Palestinian officials told The Times of Israel last year. However, the reform was never implemented.

Nonetheless, the second senior administration official said they “found the general mood in Bethlehem to be quite constructive, compared to what it was a month ago.” Afterwards, Abbas met with a US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs, Barbara Leaf, and said he was prepared to sever security ties with Israel following the latter’s actions in East Jerusalem and in West Bank.

The senior US official said Abbas had since backed down from that stance following the president’s visit and series of measures aimed at improving the economy and livelihoods of Palestinians under Israeli control.

These measures included announcing 4G mobile phone access for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, extending hours at the Allenby Bridge crossing between the West Bank and Jordan to 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and the resumption of the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Economic Committee. .

A banner comprising an Israeli flag and a Palestinian flag, as part of a campaign by the left-wing group Peace Now, ahead of the official visit of US President Joe Biden, displayed in Tel Aviv, July 11, 2022. President Biden, welcome to the two states we love the most,” it read. (Avshalom Sassoni/Flash90)

But these are measures that were previously announced by Israel and never implemented. The first senior US official speaking to The Times of Israel acknowledged that the Biden administration will need to follow up on these steps with Jerusalem to ensure they are taken into account during this time.

The official added that the White House planned to consider what it could do to advance contacts between Lapid and Abbas. The two leaders spoke days before Biden’s visit in what was the first such call 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 are no immediate plans for such a meeting to take place. His office has claimed in the past that it did not want to hold a meeting with Abbas without a clear agenda due to fears of raising Palestinian expectations unnecessarily.

Abbas’s office and the Israeli Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the report.

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