By Steve Holland and Ali Sawafta
BETHLEHEM, West Bank (Reuters) – U.S. President Joe Biden promised on Friday not to give up efforts to end the decades-long Israeli Palestinian conflict, though he offered no new proposals to restart the stalled political dialogue between the two sides.
As he wrapped up the first leg of a Middle Eastern trip before departing for Saudi Arabia, Biden visited a hospital in East Jerusalem and pledged a multi-year $100 million package of financial and technical help.
But after a meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in the occupied West Bank town of Bethlehem, he acknowledged that the creation of an independent Palestinian state remained a distant prospect.
“Even if the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on trying to bring the Palestinians and Israelis and both sides closer together,” he said.
Abbas said prospects for a two-state solution to the conflict, the model favoured by the United States and world bodies including the United Nations, were receding and the opportunity “may not remain for a long time”.
“Is it not time for this occupation to end?” Abbas said.
He reiterated demands that the United States open a consulate in East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as the capital of a future independent state, remove the Palestine Liberation Organization from a list of terrorist groups and allow it to re-open an office in Washington.
He also asked for U.S. support to bring to justice the killers of Al Jazeera journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, a Palestinian-American citizen who was killed during an Israeli raid on the West Bank city of Jenin.
Abbas repeated the Palestinian demand for East Jerusalem to become their capital, although a White House statement said the U.S. had not changed its position that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel and that its specific boundaries would have to be negotiated by the two sides.
U.S. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan said the two leaders discussed the consulate issue and said the administration did want to re-open the consulate closed by former President Donald Trump, which is located in the west of the city. But no public announcements were made on the trip.
Before his visit, Palestinian leaders had accused Biden of prioritizing Israel’s integration into a regional security arrangement with Arab countries above their concerns, including self-determination and continued Israeli settlement building in the West Bank, occupied after a war in 1967.
“PALESTINIANS ARE HURTING”
Biden acknowledged that after years of failed attempts to resolve the conflict, Palestinians living under onerous restrictions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza were suffering.
“The Palestinian people are hurting now, you can just feel it,” he said.
As well as the money for East Jerusalem hospitals, he will announce measures to upgrade telecoms networks in the West Bank and Gaza to 4G standards by the end of 2023, and other measures to ease travel between the West Bank and neighbouring Jordan.
There will be a separate $201 million funding package provided through UN relief agency UNRWA to help Palestinian refugees.
Before departing, Biden visited the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem to show support for Christians “who face challenges across the region,” the White house said.
But the atmosphere that greeted Biden in the occupied West Bank was very different from the warm reception he received in Israel, where he was greeted as an old friend and awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor.
As he was driven to the presidential palace in Bethlehem, signs saying “Mr President, this is apartheid” could be seen along the route, a reference to the accusation by local and international rights groups that Israel’s West Bank occupation has created an apartheid system.
In Bethlehem, a large banner reading “Justice for Shireen” was spread out, and a seat symbolically left empty for the Al Jazaeera journalist by former colleagues covering the meeting with Abbas.
Biden said the United States would continue to seek accountability for her death. U.S. authorities have concluded that she was probably killed by an Israeli soldier though they say they have no reason to believe the killing was intentional.
Many Palestinians accuse Israel of assassinating Abu Akleh, a charge Israel rejects. Israel says it is still investigating her killing.
(Additional reporting by Henriette Chacar; Writing by James Mackenzie; Editing by Daniel Wallis, Hugh Lawson and John Stonestreet)