Biden’s visit has resulted in Palestinian frustration

P.A. leader Mahmoud Abbas is caught between political conditions in the U.S. and Israel and a seething Palestinian street.

U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem on July 15, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of ©C-SPAN.
U.S. President Joe Biden meets with Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem on July 15, 2022. Credit: Courtesy of ©C-SPAN.
Yoni Ben Menachem
Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel Radio and Television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center. He served as director general and chief editor of the Israel Broadcasting Authority.

The IDF’s successful overnight operation in Nablus on July 23-24, in which two terrorists planning an attack on Joseph’s Tomb in Nablus were killed, deeply embarrassed the Palestinian Authority. The raid intensified the anger on the Palestinian street toward P.A. chief Mahmoud Abbas for continuing security coordination with Israel even as the IDF eliminates operatives of the Al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigade, which is part of the Fatah Party’s military wing.

Since U.S. President Joe Biden visited eastern Jerusalem and Bethlehem, the P.A. has been at a loss. Abbas has no good news for the residents of the territories. The results of Biden’s visit were what he expected, and now he has to decide what to do going forward.

Sources close to Abbas say the PLO Executive Committee will soon convene to discuss implementing the PLO Central Council’s resolutions on freezing the organization’s recognition of and agreements with Israel, including security coordination.

Two schools of thought prevail among the Fatah top brass. The more militant outlook is represented by the organization’s Deputy Chairman Mahmoud al-Aloul, who argues that Israel only understands force. After the killing of the terrorists in Nablus, Al-Aloul asserted that “Israel only understands the language of resistance”—in other words, terror attacks.

Hussein al-Sheikh and Majid Freij lead the pragmatic school. Al-Sheikh, considered a possible successor to Abbas, told The New York Times on July 15 that he does not think Israel “is serious about ending the occupation, so Palestinians have no option other than to keep working within the current arrangement.”

With his extensive diplomatic experience, Abbas is well aware that by resorting to violence and terror, the Palestinians will only hurt their cause. At the moment, however, notwithstanding Biden’s reaffirmation of his commitment to a two-state solution, the Palestinians do not have a political horizon.

During Biden’s visit to the Middle East, he pledged to provide the Palestinians with economic assistance for two hospitals in eastern Jerusalem and Palestinian refugees via the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). But the Palestinians’ demands, which include reopening the American consulate in eastern Jerusalem, reopening the PLO office in Washington and removing the PLO from the State Department’s list of Foreign Terrorist Organizations, went unanswered.

According to a Palestinian report that has not been denied, Biden told Abbas, “It would take the messiah to fulfill all of your demands.”

Although the Palestinians will try to devise a new strategy, Abbas knows that he must remain pragmatic and avoid extreme measures, or he will find himself in a confrontation with the Biden administration that he can only lose. Moreover, the current political circumstances in Israel, amid an election campaign, mean that Abbas has no Israeli partner for the time being. The political status of Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz is uncertain, and Prime Minister Yair Lapid is in no hurry to meet with Abbas for fear that it would harm him electorally.

The prevailing assessment in the Fatah leadership is that Abbas will make a lot of media noise but do nothing to change existing relations with Israel. That is also the advice of al-Sheikh and Freij, who are seeking ways to calm the frustrated and seething Palestinian street.

The Biden administration has deeply disappointed the P.A. Biden is pressuring Abbas to support the concept of normalization between Israel and Arab countries. Abbas, for his part, sees this as the administration’s attempt to circumvent the Palestinian problem and staunchly refuses. He is disheartened by Biden’s support for Israel, by the “Jerusalem Declaration” and by the fact that Biden added another $1 billion—earmarked for Israel’s air defense capabilities—to the annual $3.8 billion in U.S. aid to Israel.

As the Fatah leadership sees it, with the November U.S. congressional elections approaching, the Biden administration is choosing to boost bilateral ties with Israel and promote the normalization process and Israel’s integration into the region at the Palestinians’ expense.

The Palestinians’ desire to change the rules of the game with Israel has encountered serious obstacles, including the administration’s opposition, which is now seeking to manage the conflict and not resolve it. Nevertheless, Abbas cannot ignore Biden’s wishes.

Coordinating with Jordan against Israel

What remains for the P.A. leader, then, is to coordinate positions with King Abdullah of Jordan. On July 24, Abbas met with the Jordanian monarch in Amman to update him on his meetings with Biden and French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris.

From Abbas’s standpoint, Biden’s visit was a failure. Therefore, Abbas discussed ideas with Abdullah about a diplomatic initiative at the September U.N. General Assembly session to emphasize the Palestinian problem’s centrality to the international community.

Abbas and Abdullah view a possible victory by Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party in the upcoming Israeli elections with great trepidation.

Senior P.A. sources say Jordan’s role is “critical.” Abdullah has the ear of Biden and European leaders as well.

According to knowledgeable sources, Jordan and the P.A. will demand that any progress on economic cooperation in the region be conditioned on renewing Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

Abbas and Abdullah will continue to meet in the coming weeks. It will be interesting to see what messages Abbas tries to convey in his anticipated General Assembly address. Each year, he tries to come up with “surprises.”

Meanwhile, Abbas continues to emphasize that, despite his 87 years, he is in good health. After returning from Jordan, he underwent “routine” checkups at a hospital in Ramallah. His confidant Hussein al-Sheikh told the media that “the state of his health is good.”

Yoni Ben Menachem, a veteran Arab affairs and diplomatic commentator for Israel radio and television, is a senior Middle East analyst for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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