Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Takes Back Seat on Joe Biden's Mideast Trip

Promises to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have bedeviled many recent U.S. presidents. On his first trip to the Middle East since taking office, President Joe Biden has made clear he is not planning to repeat the same mistake.

The president has devoted the first part of his trip to addressing Israel's security concerns in the region, including Iran's nuclear weapons program — an issue that has drawn far more attention in recent years than the long-running conflict to resolve the question of Palestinian statehood.

Biden will turn to Palestinian issues Friday, his last day in Israel, before flying to Saudi Arabia to attend a politically fraught summit that has overshadowed the entire trip. But his visit to the occupied West Bank and meeting with President Mahmoud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority is sandwiched in between other events in a packed four-day trip, indicating how much the United States' Middle East agenda has changed, experts told Newsweek.

"When Biden talks about Israel, his focus is not on Israel's relationship to the Palestinians, it's about Iran" and other issues, said Shadi Hamid, a senior fellow at the Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings. "Palestinians are an afterthought in the region."

Increasingly, the U.S. views the Middle East through a new "lens of 21st-century opportunities and priorities," said Lucy Kurtzer-Ellenbogen, director of the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict Program at the United States Institute for Peace.

"The Israeli-Palestinian conflict sort of gets left behind in that broader message," she added. "Not in a sense that it's ignored, but it falls further down the list of priorities."

Biden is expected to release a joint statement with the Palestinian leader in which he will likely reiterate his support for a two-state solution to the conflict. The White House is also reportedly planning to use the occasion to announce $100 million in aid for Palestinian health care facilities in East Jerusalem.

The new assistance for hospitals is significant. But the Palestinian Authority hoped for a more concrete deliverable: an announcement from Biden that he planned to deliver on his campaign pledge to reopen the U.S. consulate in Jerusalem, or at least a signal from the president that America would push Israel to drop its opposition to the plan.

The closed U.S. consulate has become a symbol of the deterioration of the peace process, and of the degree to which the Israeli-Palestinian conflict no longer shapes regional affairs.

The consulate provided diplomatic and humanitarian services to Palestinians. Perhaps more importantly, it symbolized America's recognition of Palestinian claims to East Jerusalem. The dispute over control of Jerusalem has long been a central sticking point in peace talks, along with addressing the return to Israel of exiled Palestinians — the so-called "Palestinian refugee question" — the normalization of relations between Israel and neighboring Arab nations, other security concerns, and the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

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President Joe Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid and Israeli President Isaac Herzog during an arrival ceremony at Ben Gurion Airport on July 13, 2022 in Lod, Israel. Amir Levy/Getty Images

Former President Donald Trump closed the consulate in 2018 and incorporated it into the U.S. embassy in Israel, which he moved the same year from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. The controversial moves infuriated Palestinians, but were hailed by Trump and Israel as a major breakthrough.

"We have taken Jerusalem, the toughest part of the negotiation, off the table," Trump tweeted at the time.

During his 2020 presidential campaign, Biden promised that as president he would reopen the consulate. Once in office, his administration has spent some time on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Last year, it intervened to help avert a longer conflict between Israel and Palestinian militants in Gaza. Biden also began providing aid to the Palestinians again, reversing a decision by the Trump administration to cut it off.

In June, the Biden administration announced that the Palestinian affairs section of the U.S. embassy in Jerusalem would report directly to the State Department. It also renamed the unit the U.S. Office of Palestinian Affairs, upgrading the diplomatic relationship between the U.S. and the Palestinians.

But the change came as the plan to formally reopen the consulate appears to have stalled. The move is opposed by Israel, which views Jerusalem as its capital, and the Biden administration has said it can't act without Israel's approval. Palestinian leaders have argued the administration does not need Israel's permission, and is using that as an excuse to avoid a decision.

At a meeting on Palestinian issues at the White House last week ahead of Biden's trip, senior administration officials insisted the U.S. can't reopen the consulate unless Israel signs off on the plan, according to a person familiar with the matter, who requested to speak on the condition of anonymity to describe the conversation.

"They don't want to wade into those waters. They view it as too much of a headache," the person said. Senior White House officials "learned their lesson from the Obama administration in terms of losing political capital [on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict], and they want to invest their political capital elsewhere."

Senior Israeli officials struck a similar tone on a call with reporters before Biden landed at Ben Gurion Airport on Wednesday.

"We believe that today there is an unprecedented opportunity to change the dynamics in the Middle East," a senior official said. But none of the officials, who spoke on background, mentioned the Palestinians or the peace process, spending most of the hour-long briefing discussing Iran's nuclear weapons program.

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A Palestinian protester carries a placard during a demonstration in the occupied West Bank city of Ramallah on July 14, 2022, to protest the visit of US President Joe Biden to Israel. Abbas Momani/AFP via Getty Images

Biden has largely followed suit on his trip. He briefly addressed the prospect of a two-state solution at a press conference Thursday with Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid, though he framed it primarily as a security issue for Israel.

"Israel must remain an independent, democratic, Jewish state," Biden said. "And the best way to achieve that remains a two-state solution for two people, both of whom have deep and ancient roots in this land, living side-by-side in peace and security."

But most of Biden's remarks were focused on Iran and his visit to Saudi Arabia, where he is scheduled to meet with the leaders of several Gulf states, as well as Egypt, Jordan and Iraq.

The trip to Saudi Arabia carries significant political risk for Biden, who promised as a candidate to make the country a "pariah" on the world stage in response to its record on human rights and the death of the Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi. The C.I.A. determined that his death was ordered by Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

Biden has defended his decision to travel to Saudi Arabia while insisting the main purpose of the visit is not to ask the country to boost oil production to help lower the price of gas in America. Biden said Thursday he would raise the issue of Saudi Arabia's human rights record at the summit, but did not say whether he would bring up Khashoggi's murder.

The Abraham Accords, the centerpiece of Trump's Middle East policy, have also loomed over Biden's trip. Biden's embrace of the policy has taken attention away from more recent events, like the death of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed earlier this year while reporting on an Israeli operation in the West Bank.

The accords, brokered by the Trump administration in 2020, normalized relations between Israel and several Arab countries. The Biden administration has praised the agreements as a tool that can help bolster regional stability. Israel and Saudi Arabia are in talks to normalize relations as well, and both sides are expected to make progress on the discussions during Biden's visit.

But the Abraham Accords also represent a major shift in the approach many Arab nations have taken to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

"The Abraham Accords shattered the paradigm that normalization or peace with Israel was on hold until there was a Palestinian state," Kurtzer-Ellenbogen said. "The question from some critics has been, 'Can the Abraham Accords be used as a bridge to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian issue, or is it a way to bypass the Palestinians and ignore the issue?'"

For now, at least, Biden's trip seems to have provided an answer.