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7 issues President Abbas will raise with President Biden

In a post-Trump era focused on more immediate geopolitical matters, Palestinians face an uphill battle to repair damaged ties and return to peace talks
Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, at the presidential compound in Ramallah, March 9, 2016. (Debbie Hill, Pool via AP/File)
Then-US vice president Joe Biden, left, and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, right, at the presidential compound in Ramallah, March 9, 2016. (Debbie Hill, Pool via AP/File)

President Joe Biden’s upcoming July visit to the Middle East will be the first opportunity for Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas to meet face-to-face with Joe Biden. The US president’s brief stop in Bethlehem is better described as a courtesy call than a working diplomatic visit.

Nevertheless, Abbas intends to raise key issues of vital concern to Palestinians during their face-to-face meeting as well as in a dossier that the Palestinians plan to prepare and personally hand to President Biden. Palestinian leaders plan to seek clarifications on Biden’s positions on critical, fundamental issues long facing both the US-Palestine the Israel-Palestine relationship. While the resumption of aid to UNRWA and economic US assistance to the Palestinian Authority and the renewal of political ties between US and Palestinian officials were welcome steps, little else has been accomplished, especially on the peace front.

Relations with Washington were left in shambles following the Trump administration’s disastrously short-sighted, half-baked and completely one-sided approach to Palestine-Israel issues. Given Biden’s very short photo-op visit, perceived by many Palestinians as putting little weight on the peace process and issues of major concern to Palestine, Palestinians expect Biden to extend an invitation to Mahmoud Abbas to Washington to discuss fully and in appropriate detail the matters of concern to the Palestinians.

Palestinian Authority officials recognize that regional and geopolitical challenges have forced the US to reshuffle its priorities away from efforts to resolve the Israel-Palestine conflict. The focus is now on formidable challenges that include the Ukraine-Russia war, spiraling fuel prices and the attendant need to persuade Arab oil-producing countries to increase production, the standoff with Iran and creation of a united Arab front to confront Iran’s regional ambitions, and ending the war in Yemen. Add to that the absence of a partner with whom to negotiate following the dissolution of Israel’s government, and the climb is steeply uphill.

Notwithstanding these obstacles, here are the seven key issues Palestinians intend to raise with Biden:

1. Two-state support
On the peace process, Palestinians need to hear from Biden his unequivocal commitment to a two-state solution, and his support for the establishment of a viable, contiguous Palestinian state – not based on the preposterous proposals put forth by Trump and his key Middle East advisors, Jared Kushner and Jason Greenblatt, who know little about the region. Palestinians want to hear Biden state that the final peace resolution should be based on UN resolutions 242 and 338, which the United States voted for in the past.

2. Reopening of offices
The Biden administration promised during and after its presidential election campaign to reopen the PLO office in Washington, DC, and reopen the East Jerusalem US consulate which used to report directly to Washington and was viewed as the “shadow US embassy” to Palestine.

There are challenges to executing these two major actions. To reopen the PLO representative office in Washington, the US administration would have to use a presidential waiver, renewed every six months, to freeze any “punitive” measures Congress and US courts have placed on the PLO office in Washington. (For a detailed article on the subject, see my post, “12 legislative landmines on Biden’s path to restoring US-PLO ties”.)

On reopening the US East Jerusalem consulate, given Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, the US government would need Israel’s permission to make this move and Israel is unlikely to consent. One workaround could be for the US to open a consulate at the site of the its embassy in Jerusalem. What the US does on the premises of its embassy cannot be challenged by Israel. Palestinians would enter from a separate door of the embassy compound. The consul-general appointed to such an office should hold the rank of ambassador and report directly to Washington, not to the appointed US Ambassador to Israel.

3. Delisting the PLO
It may come as a surprise to some that the US, the supposed chief mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, still lists the PLO, the sole legitimate representative of the Palestinian people, as a terrorist organization. PLO officials have been shuttling to the United States since the signing of the Oslo Accords in the early 1990s. The US also provides military and economic assistance to the Palestinian Authority, a subset of the PLO. According to existing laws, the US is providing aid to a presumably terrorist organization. Abbas will demand the permanent removal of the PLO from that abhorrent terror list.

4. Mistreatment of Palestinian Americans
Following the blatant killing of Palestinian-American Al-Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh by Israeli troops in Jenin, the US administration has thus far refused to immediately demand the establishment of an independent and transparent committee to investigate Abu Akleh’s murder. Abbas plans to raise the issue of Israel’s treatment of Palestinian Americans with President Biden. Palestinian-Americans born in the United States, those who are naturalized or those with Palestinian and Jerusalem identity cards are often mistreated and discriminated against by Israel.

The urgency of this matter emanated as well from the Israeli military government in the West Bank known as COGAT (Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories). COGAT recently published a 97-page document codifying the rules and regulations by which Israel controls most aspects of Palestinians’ lives in the West Bank.

Abbas wants Israel to treat Palestinian Americans as American nationals, just as it treats American Jews. Israel’s refusal to allow Palestinian Americans who hold Palestinian Authority passports to enter the country through Ben Gurion Airport is an unnecessary and discriminatory hardship imposed on Palestinian Americans.

All of this is important to Israel as well because Israel has, for years, been requesting a visa waiver for its citizens to enter the United States without obtaining a visa. The US government, however, has made it clear that no such waiver would be granted to Israel so long as it discriminates against American citizens who are of Palestinian descent, especially those holding Palestinian passports. Israel often delays entry, harasses, and summarily deports Americans who are known for their support of Palestinians.

You might recall Israel’s chutzpah in refusing a few years ago to grant a visa to a delegation of US congresspeople including Representative Rashida Tlaib whose family lives in the West Bank. On this issue, Palestinians expect the Biden administration not to waver, as did Trump’s pro-Israel administration, and use this refusal to extract concessions from Israel.

Regarding the killing of Al-Jazeera American-Palestinian journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, by Israeli troops in Jenin is thus far, 57 members of the House of Representatives and 24 US Senators, including Jewish members, have written to the US secretary of state demanding that he open an investigation into the killing of Abu Akleh. Astonishingly, no one in the administration has budged on the matter. Palestinians wonder – yes, they do – whether, if both the secretary of state and the national security adviser were not Jewish, they might have acted to properly protect US citizens.

5. Increased aid
On the economic and security fronts, the US needs to increase aid to the Palestinians. Biden has poured tens of billions of dollars into the months-old Russia-Ukraine war without blinking an eye at the cost of such aid to the US treasury. Comparatively, the Palestinians receive a pittance of such funds on an annual basis.

4. No security coordinator downgrade
News is circulating that the United States is planning to downgrade the level of the security coordinator with Palestinians from a three-star general to a US colonel. The three-star general has access to all branches of the US government. By comparison, the colonel would have limited access which could hinder his/her ability to get things done in Washington. This anticipated replacement could still be opposed by the White House based on national security reasons. A US colonel is of a low rank compared to a three-star general.

7. Release of tax revenue
Biden will be asked to urge/demand from Israel the release of Palestinian tax revenues, collected by Israel, due to Israel’s allegations that these funds are “pay-to-kill” rewards to Palestinians imprisoned or killed opposing the occupation. The withholding of those funds is a violation of the Paris accords signed between Israel and the PLO. Palestinian officials have been reforming the payment system to be dispensed on a needs basis.

These are seven of the key points that need Biden’s attention and US action as a peace mediator between Israel and the Palestinians.

Those world leaders who have ignored Palestine in the past have had to deal with worse consequences than being attentive to the plight of the Palestinian people and their right to an independent contiguous state living side-by-side in peace with Israel.

About the Author
Bishara A Bahbah is vice president of the U.S.-Palestine Council (USPC), the only active US-registered Palestinian-American lobby. Bahbah is former editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem-based Palestinian newspaper, Al-Fajr. He served as the associate director of Harvard University’s Middle East Institute and was a member of the Palestinian delegation on arms control and regional security.
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