Israel was poised to turn US President Joe Biden’s visit to an east Jerusalem hospital into a major diplomatic incident as Washington refused to allow Israeli officials to join, a senior administration official told The Times of Israel.
Last Friday’s tour of Augusta Victoria Hospital marked the first time a US President set foot in East Jerusalem outside of the Old City. Israel viewed the visit as a political statement from the government aimed at recognizing Palestinian ties to the Palestinian-majority part of the capital.
As a result, it has been trying for months to persuade the US to let Israeli government officials attend the visit to demonstrate that East Jerusalem is part of its undivided capital, the senior Biden administration official said in a call that lasted a few days after which the President made a trip to the region.
But the US dismissed the repeated efforts, claiming Biden’s visit was not a political statement but a promotion of health care for all.
In his Augusta Victoria speech, Biden focused largely on that point, saying a new $100 million donation to the East Jerusalem Hospital Network is “part of our commitment to supporting health and dignity.” [for] the Palestinian people.”
However, Israel remained unconvinced of the administration’s intentions in the run-up to the president’s trip, and for about two months had officials from the highest levels of government in Jerusalem reaching out to their American counterparts — asking that Israeli officials be allowed to accompany Biden. the senior US official said, adding that efforts began during Naftali Bennett’s tenure as prime minister but continued after he was replaced by Yair Lapid on July 1, and even phone calls from former senior Israeli officials at the US Embassy in Jerusalem included.
A few weeks before the President’s arrival, the US sent an advance team to Israel to prepare for the trip. The team’s schedule included a stop in Augusta Victoria to finalize details for the visit. But they were met upon arrival by two officials from Israel’s Health Ministry, who tried to “crash” the meeting, the senior administration official said. The representatives insisted that their attendance had been approved by the US Embassy, although the latter never gave such approval.
Just days before the visit, the Israeli government made the “strategic decision” to proceed without the presence of any of its representatives, the US official said.
The official claimed that while the president avoided making political statements about East Jerusalem, the decision to stop in that part of the city was “deliberate,” without elaborating.
Domino Effects of Trump’s Jerusalem Policy
The US stance on Jerusalem played an important role in scheduling Biden’s meeting with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, which took place in Bethlehem immediately after the Augusta Victoria stop.
The offices of Biden and Abbas initially tried to get the two leaders to issue a joint statement after their meeting that would highlight areas of US-Palestinian unification regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the administration official said.
Washington drafted a version that was sent to Ramallah for approval. The PA returned the statement with changes that went much further than the Biden administration was willing to go. In a last-ditch attempt to reach a compromise, the White House asked Abbas’ office what its red line for the statement was, and Ramallah replied that it must include recognizing East Jerusalem as the capital of a future Palestinian state.
The administration official explained that the US could not make such a declaration because it would violate the proclamation signed by former President Donald Trump recognizing Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, while claiming that the specific limits of Israeli sovereignty are “subject to finality.” “ are status negotiations between the parties.”
When it became clear that the US was stuck on the issue, Abbas’s office suggested that the two presidents simply make separate statements to conclude their meeting.
Biden expressed – for the first time as President – his support for a two-state solution based on pre-1967 lines with agreed land swaps, in a subtle nod to Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem.
But he sufficed by saying that Jerusalem “must be a city for all its inhabitants,” maintaining the status quo at its holy sites.
Abbas, on the other hand, specified that a peace agreement would require “the ending of the Israeli occupation of our land, land of the State of Palestine, with East Jerusalem as its capital, on the 1967 borders”.
In both the public statements and the private meeting, Abbas Biden pressed on the PA’s long-held demands that the government live up to its commitments to reopen the US consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO diplomatic office in Washington, in addition to scrapping a 1987 Congressional act should characterize the PLO and its affiliated organizations as terrorist organizations.
“We are not terrorists,” Abbas Biden said during her public statements.
Biden ‘honest’ about what he can deliver to PA
At the closed-door meeting, Biden was “honest about what he could do,” the senior administration official said, without going so far as to say specifically that the President had told Abbas that reopening the consulate was not possible due to Israeli opposition.
To address the issue of the PLO office in Washington, representatives of the newly formed US Office of Palestinian Affairs were asked to explain what the PA would need to do to allow its reopening. Abbas was told that US law would require him to stop his efforts against Israel at the International Criminal Court and halt his efforts to join UN agencies and become a UN member state — a particularly hard pill Ramallah has given the PA President Biden asked for his support in the latter effort during the meeting, the administration official acknowledged.
If they promised to roll back those initiatives, the White House would consider signing a waiver that would allow the PLO office to reopen temporarily, the US official said, adding that the waiver process could be halted entirely if Ramallah keep making those promises.
Abbas was also told during the meeting that scrapping the 1987 law would force the PA to reform its welfare policy, which includes payments to security prisoners who have carried out attacks on Israelis, along with the families of killed attackers, a second senior said administrative officer.
Ramallah has expressed a willingness to reform the policy in closed meetings, including the most recent one with Biden, and has drafted a proposal that would see payments to prisoners based on financial need rather than length of 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 a month ago.” Abbas then met with Barbara Leaf, the US assistant secretary of state for Middle East affairs, and said he was ready to sever security ties with Israel over its actions in East Jerusalem and the West Bank.
The senior US official pointed out that Abbas resigned from that position due to the president’s visit and the series of steps aimed at improving the economy and livelihood of Palestinians under Israeli control.
These moves included announcing 4G cellphone access for Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, extending hours at the Allenby Bridge between the West Bank and Jordan to 24/7, and reconvening the Israeli-Palestinian Joint Economic Committee.
But these are measures previously announced by Israel and then never implemented. The first senior US official to speak to The Times of Israel acknowledged that the Biden administration needs to follow up on these moves with Jerusalem to ensure they go ahead this time.
The official added that the White House plans to explore what it can do to advance Lapid-Abbas contacts. The two leaders spoke days before Biden’s visit in the first such call between Israeli and Palestinian leaders in five years.
Lapid told French President Emmanuel Macron earlier this month that he did not rule out the possibility of meeting Abbas in person, although there were no immediate plans for such a meeting. His office has in the past claimed it does not want to hold a meeting with Abbas without a clear agenda, fearing it will unnecessarily raise Palestinian expectations.
Abbas’ office and the Israeli Foreign Ministry did not immediately respond to requests for comment on the report.