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Biden’s Mideast Message: Good News for Israel, Small Steps for Palestinians

JERUSALEM — President Biden had contrasting messages for Israelis and Palestinians on Friday before departing Israel for Saudi Arabia, announcing new steps toward Israeli integration within the Middle East while cautioning Palestinians that now was not the time for new peace talks to end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mr. Biden began the day by announcing that Saudi Arabia, the most powerful Arab country, would allow direct flights to and from Israel. After years of clandestine discussions behind the scenes between Saudi Arabia and Israel, that agreement was the first overt step by the Saudis to create a formal relationship.

Hailed by Mr. Biden as “historic,” it was the latest sign of Israel’s growing acceptance among Arab leaders after years of regional isolation, as fears of a nuclear Iran — shared by both Israel and several Sunni Arab leaders — have superseded Arab solidarity with the Palestinians.

For the Palestinians, Mr. Biden offered sympathy and funding, but few long-term prospects. On a brief visit to the West Bank, he announced more than $300 million for Palestinian hospitals and refugees, some of it subject to congressional approval. And he reported that Israel had agreed to give the Palestinians access to 4G internet, a decision not yet confirmed by Israel.

He also restated his support for a future Palestinian state, with a capital in at least part of Jerusalem, and said that Israel’s increased acceptance within the Arab world could lead to new momentum for the dormant peace process.

But Mr. Biden warned that “the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations,” and announced no long-term program to revive them, beyond the hope that the changing alliances of the Middle East might at some point allow for a breakthrough in Israeli-Palestinian relations.

“In this moment, when Israel is improving relations with its neighbors throughout the region, we can harness that same momentum to reinvigorate the peace process between the Palestinian people and the Israelis,” Mr. Biden said, referring both to the new Saudi flight arrangements and a set of earlier agreements between Israel, Bahrain, Morocco and the United Arab Emirates.

It was a juxtaposition that highlighted the central dichotomy of his 49-hour visit to Israel and the West Bank.

To Israelis, it was a source of celebration — the arrival of a self-declared Zionist, one of its oldest and staunchest friends, and now a standard-bearer for Israel’s integration within the Middle East.

“A visit that moved our entire country,” summarized Yair Lapid, Israel’s interim prime minister, as Mr. Biden departed for Saudi Arabia.

To Palestinians, parts of the visit may have been welcome: Mr. Biden brought funding, attention and reassurance that the U.S. still supports the concept of Palestinian sovereignty.

But it was also a reminder that Palestinian aspirations are not a priority for the Biden administration. Mr. Biden spent just three hours in the West Bank, against 46 in Israel. And he disappointed Palestinians by avoiding criticism of Israel, defusing expectations of a renewed American-led peace process and maintaining several Trump administration decisions widely criticized by Palestinians.

“Mr. President,” said Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, at a joint press briefing with Mr. Biden in Bethlehem. “Isn’t it time for this occupation to end?”

Some praised Mr. Biden’s decision to restore American funding for a Palestinian network of hospitals, with one hospital director, Fadi Atrush, saying that the president was “bringing hope to thousands of Palestinian patients.”

But others portrayed the promises of more aid as merely short-term measures that did little to address the more fundamental problem of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. A nurse whose hospital will benefit from Mr. Biden’s funding pledge thanked him for the donation but said that Palestinians needed more than money.

“We need more justice, we need more dignity,” she called to him after he announced the funding at the Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem.

There was frustration, too, at the news of another thaw in relations between Israel and the Arab world.

For years, most Arab leaders said they would not recognize Israel before the creation of an independent Palestinian state. In 2002, Saudi Arabia itself spearheaded a peace proposal based on that premise — and Mr. Abbas, in his meeting with Mr. Biden, tried to channel that same idea.

“The key to peace and security in our region begins with recognizing the state of Palestine,” Mr. Abbas said.

But Mr. Biden’s own words and actions appeared to undermine the thought.

Within hours, Mr. Biden was on his way to Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It was one of the first few overt direct flights between Israel and Saudi Arabia — the latest indication of how Israel is gaining regional acceptance as security concerns and trade ambitions take on greater importance for some Arab leaders than an immediate resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

It is a gloomy time in general for Palestinians, with their leadership divided between the Palestinian Authority, which administers parts of the West Bank, and Hamas, the Islamist militant group that wrested control of Gaza from the authority in 2007. Most Palestinians see little hope of reconciliation, recent polling shows.

In Gaza, a blockade enforced by Israel and Egypt is in its 15th year. One in four Palestinians was unemployed in 2021. Seven in 10 say they believe that a Palestinian state is no longer feasible because of the expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, according to a June poll. Nearly 80 percent want the resignation of Mr. Abbas, who last faced an election in 2005, and the vast majority see both the authority and Hamas as corrupt.

Against this backdrop, Mr. Biden offered gentle criticism of the Palestinian leadership. “The Palestinian Authority has important work to do as well, if you don’t mind my saying,” Mr. Biden said. “Now’s the time to strengthen Palestinian institutions to improve governance, transparency and accountability.”

But many Palestinians have criticisms of their own for the Biden administration, with 65 percent opposing dialogue between their leadership and the United States.

Mr. Biden has not formally reversed a Trump administration decision to legitimize Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which most of the world considers illegal. Following Israeli pressure, he has not reopened the U.S. consulate to the Palestinians in Jerusalem and the Palestinian mission in Washington, both of which were shuttered under Mr. Trump.

The Biden administration also angered Palestinians by recently declining to push Israel to launch a criminal investigation into the killing in May of a Palestinian American journalist, Shireen Abu Akleh, in which multiple investigations, including one by The New York Times, found that the bullets had come from the location of an Israeli Army unit that knew journalists were in the area.

Palestinians demonstrated against Mr. Biden on Friday in both Jerusalem and Bethlehem, and some Palestinians criticized Mr. Abbas for meeting with him.

“Palestinians consider the U.S. as a partner in the occupation, whether by funding it or by supporting Israel politically,” said Suhaib Zahda, 39, a political activist in the West Bank city of Nablus.

Mr. Biden said he empathized with Palestinian frustrations. “The Palestinian people are hurting now — you can just feel it,” he said on Friday, adding that the experience of the Palestinians reminded him of his own Irish heritage and the struggles of the Irish under colonial British rule.

The president quoted a verse from “The Cure of Troy,” a poem by the Irish poet Seamus Heaney that he often cites:

History says, Don’t hope
On this side of the grave,
But then, once in a lifetime
The longed-for tidal wave
Of justice can rise up,
And hope and history rhyme

Mr. Biden then added that he hoped “we’re reaching one of those moments where hope and history rhyme.”

He didn’t elaborate on how or why.

Hiba Yazbek contributed reporting from Jerusalem.

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