Joe Biden was greeted by small groups of protesters and billboards decrying the Israeli occupation of the Palestinian territories as apartheid during his brief visits to East Jerusalem and Bethlehem, signs of disappointment at the sidelining of the Palestinian quest for statehood during the president’s tour of the Middle East.
The president visited Augusta Victoria hospital in East Jerusalem on Friday morning, where he promised $ 300m (£ 250m) in assistance for the Palestinians, before traveling in a convoy to Bethlehem to meet the Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas, and visit the Church of the Nativity.
On Friday afternoon Air Force One will make a first direct flight from Tel Aviv to Saudi Arabia, where the president’s goal is to convince Gulf hydrocarbon producers to increase supply to calm global oil markets shaken by the war in Ukraine. He will also seek to build up Israel’s nascent political ties with Arab nations, which share a common foe in Iran.
“Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and dignity,” he said in a speech at the hospital complex, which serves Palestinians.
“Access to healthcare, when you need it, is essential to living a life of dignity for all of us.”
Monetary pledges, however, have done little to assuage Palestinian skepticism that the US no longer has an appetite for their cause: Biden said twice this week that he does not think peace is possible “in the near term”.
He has also not fulfilled a promise to reopen a US mission in East Jerusalem closed by Donald Trump, who broke with decades of diplomatic convention in recognizing the divided city as Israel’s capital. Trump also heavily favored Israel’s rightwing, which opposes Palestinian statehood.
Before Biden’s meeting with Abbas, the Palestinian public and leadership alike expressed anger at the new administration’s failure to curb either Israeli settlement building or settler violence against Palestinians in the occupied West Bank, despite a marked change of rhetoric after Trump’s term in office.
A few dozen protesters outside the Augusta Victoria carried Palestinian flags and posters bearing the image of Shireen Abu Aqleh, the Palestinian-American journalist probably killed by Israeli fire two months ago, which the US has concluded was an accident.
The Israeli rights group B’Tselem put up billboards and digital screens in Bethlehem which read “Mr President, this is apartheid” – a claim made by several major human rights organizations over the last year, but which Israel rejects as a threat to its existence .
When Biden finished speaking at the hospital, a woman who identified herself as a pediatric nurse thanked him for the financial assistance but said: “We need more justice, more dignity,” while Palestinian journalists covering Biden’s press conference in Bethlehem wore black T-shirts reading: “Justice for Shireen”.
In remarks after his meeting with Abbas, Biden called Abu Aqleh’s death an “enormous loss to the essential work of sharing with the world the story of the Palestinian people”. Struggling to pronounce her name, the president said the US would continue to insist on “a full and transparent accounting of her death”.
Abbas, who is deeply unpopular with the Palestinian public, said “the key to peace” in the region “begins with ending the Israeli occupation of our land,” and that “the killers of the martyr journalist Shireen Abu Aqleh, they need to be held accountable ”.
Although the president repeatedly reaffirmed the US’s support for a two-state solution to the conflict during his three-day trip to Israel and the territories, the visit largely focused on the threat posed to Israel and its new Arab allies by Iran’s growing military capabilities.
A far-reaching communique called the “Jerusalem declaration”, signed by Biden and Israel’s caretaker prime minister, Yair Lapid, on Thursday, offered little to the Palestinians other than a pledge from Israel to improve economic conditions for the 5 million people in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
The last round of serious talks aimed at ending the 55-year-old military occupation broke down more than a decade ago, and Lapid, who became interim leader after Israel’s short-lived coalition government collapsed last month, lacks a mandate to restart peace negotiations . Polling suggests that Israel could elect its most rightwing government to date in elections scheduled for November 1, making it even less likely the peace process will be a priority for Israelis.
Palestinian leaders also fear being further undermined by the Abraham accords, normalization agreements between Israel with several Arab nations facilitated by the Trump administration despite the continuing occupation.
Biden will lobby for fully integrating Israel into the emerging regional defense architecture against Iran during his trip to the Saudi city of Jeddah.
Saudi Arabia, the Middle East’s geopolitical heavyweight, does not formally recognize Israel’s existence. However, in a small sign of a tentative new relationship between the two countries, before Biden’s flight on Friday Riyadh announced “the decision to open the kingdom’s airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements for overflying”, signaling the end of a longstanding ban on Israeli flights over its territory.
Biden has defended his decision to re-engage with Saudi Arabia after branding the kingdom a “global pariah” over the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.
Speaking on Thursday, the president said he will not avoid human rights issues on the final leg of his Middle East tour, despite refusing to commit to mentioning the murder when he meets the kingdom’s crown prince.