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Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs
Strategic Alliances for a Secure, Connected, and Prosperous Region

Preview of President Joe Biden’s Visit to Israel

Filed under: Israel, U.S. Policy

Preview of President Joe Biden’s Visit to Israel
The arrival of then-Vice President Joe Biden in Israel on January 13, 2014. (Photo credit: U.S. Embassy, Jerusalem)
  • The Biden administration is trying to appease Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas and has taken an intermediate step toward reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which was closed during the Trump administration.
  • Israel made a mistake by not objecting to the administration’s action, which begins to erode Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The White House officially announced that President Biden would visit Israel and the Palestinian Authority on July 13 and 14, 2022.

On Tuesday, June 14, senior PLO official and Abbas confidant Hussein al-Sheikh met Barbara Leaf, the U.S. assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, who came to Israel to lay the groundwork for the president’s visit.

Biden will be hosted by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem, where Abbas hosted President Trump in the past.

Biden is expected to visit east Jerusalem for the first time. There, perhaps at the Makassed Hospital, he is expected to announce the renewal of U.S. financial aid to east Jerusalem’s hospital network, amounting to tens of millions of dollars.

The Biden administration is concerned about reports of 87-year-old PA chairman Mahmoud Abbas’ state of health and fears that his exit from the political stage will undermine the PA’s hold on the West Bank, spark a bloody succession battle, and boost the status of Hamas.

Joe Biden with Mahmoud Abbas
Then-Vice President Joe Biden met Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, on March 9, 2016. (WAFA)

U.S. policy-makers also fear that even before Biden visits Israel next month, Abbas will take measures to further ensnare the political situation when the Bennett-Lapid government is on the verge of collapse.

Last week, Abbas warned U.S. Secretary of State Blinken and French President Macron that the Palestinian leadership is again seriously considering implementing the PLO Central Council’s decision to suspend recognition and security coordination with Israel in light of “the Israeli escalation in Jerusalem and the Temple Mount,” evidenced by Jerusalem Day events this year.

Biden hastened to dispatch special envoy Hady Amr and, after him, Leaf to Ramallah, where they met with Abbas.

In her parley with the PA chairman, Leaf emphasized the administration’s commitment to the two-state solution. Abbas, for his part, again threatened to suspend relations and security coordination with Israel and demanded that the administration fulfill its promises to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem and the PLO office in Washington and delist the PLO as a terror organization.

Last week, the Biden administration announced bureaucratic changes in the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem meant to send Abbas a reassuring message that the administration is not walking back its promise to reopen the Jerusalem consulate. Unfortunately, that measure would indeed symbolize U.S. recognition of east Jerusalem as the capital of the future Palestinian state and, de facto, cancel President Trump’s recognition of united Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

The administration has also decided to restore the separation between the Palestinian Affairs Office and the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem, with the former reporting directly to the State Department in Washington instead of to Ambassador to Israel, Thomas Nides.

This diplomatic entity’s official name has been changed from the “Palestinian Affairs Unit” to the “Palestinian Affairs Office,” and it will continue to be headed by senior diplomat George Noll.

The Biden administration updated Israel on its new move. Israel has not expressed opposition even though the measure is clearly an interim stage toward reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, which will deal with the affairs of “Palestine.”

In 2018, the Trump administration closed the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem and lowered the level of U.S. representation to the Palestinian Authority, while also transferring the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. In addition, the consulate’s work was merged with the embassy’s to erase any sign of recognition of Palestinian sovereignty.

The U.S. Embassy in Jerusalem reported directly to the administration on Palestinian developments. Under the new arrangement, it will continue to be headed by George Noll.

The Palestinian Affairs Office will take orders directly from the State Department’s Bureau of Near Eastern Affairs, bypassing the ambassador in Jerusalem.

This American measure is a temporary palliative in response to Palestinian pressure and Abbas’s threats. According to U.S. sources, it will speed the transfer of diplomatic messages between the Biden administration and the Palestinian Authority and bolster their relationship.

President Biden is attempting a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, he seeks to placate Abbas and move one step further toward reopening the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem; on the other, he wants to avoid a diplomatic confrontation with the tottering Bennett-Lapid government. The administration does not want to give the Israeli right-wing parties ammunition to lambast the Bennett government for caving to U.S. pressure and agreeing to the opening of the consulate in Jerusalem.

The Biden administration will do all possible to prevent the Netanyahu-led Likud Party’s return to power. The Biden administration’s nightmare is seeing Benjamin Netanyahu again take office as Israeli prime minister.

 Benjamin Netanyahu with Joe Biden, 2014
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met with then-U.S. Vice President Joe Biden at the prime minister’s official residence in Jerusalem on January 13, 2014. (Haim Zach/ GPO)

As a prelude to Biden’s arrival in the region next month – if it indeed materializes in the end – the two U.S. representatives who visited Ramallah have conveyed the message that the United States is committed to the two-state solution and to reopening the consulate in Jerusalem. As the Americans see it, that should be enough to calm Abbas for the time being.

In a State Department briefing on Tuesday, June 14, 2022,1 Spokesperson Ned Price would not give a timeframe for reopening the consulate but underlined the administration’s intention to do so:

QUESTION: Today, there was a meeting between Barbara Leaf with the Palestinian prime minister [sic], and he in fact demanded that the consulate be open. So, is there a timeframe? Are we getting closer to sort of a timeframe for reopening the consulate?

MR. PRICE: There’s no timeframe I can provide you other than to reiterate what I just said, that we remain committed to reopening the consulate in Jerusalem. It is part and parcel of our effort to re-engage with the Palestinian Authority, the Palestinian people. You have to remember that when we took office in January of last year, there had been almost a complete rupture, a complete severance between the United States Government and the Palestinian Authority, and in some ways, the Palestinian people.

Meanwhile, Israel made a mistake by not objecting to the administration’s intermediate measure of reestablishing a separate Palestinian Affairs Office. Unfortunately, President Biden is stubborn and will not give up on reopening the consulate. Israel needs to show a consistent stance on the issue, which is vital to preserving President Trump’s historic declaration of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The move by the Biden administration marks the beginning of the erosion of that declaration.

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