In West Bank, Biden embraces ‘two states for two peoples’

BETHLEHEM, West Bank (AP) — President Joe Biden, visiting the West Bank on Friday, restated his continued support for “two states for two peoples” but acknowledged that the “ground is not ripe” for reviving stalled talks aimed at achieving an elusive peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

His comments came during a joint appearance in Bethlehem with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, where he announced $201 million for a United Nations agency that supports Palestinians refugees.

“The Palestinian people are hurting now,” Biden said. “You can just feel it. Your grief and frustration. In the United States, we can feel it.”

Biden said they “deserve a state of their own that’s independent, sovereign, viable and contiguous. Two states for two peoples, both of whom have deep and ancient roots in this land, living side by side in peace and security.”

Although such a goal “can seem so far away,” he said he wouldn’t give up on the peace process.

“Even if the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on bringing the Palestinians and the Israelis, both sides, closer together,” he said.

Abbas, in his own remarks, said “the key to peace” in the region “begins with ending the Israeli occupation of our land.” He said Israel “cannot continue to act as a state above law” and said the killers of Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh “need to be held accountable.”

Abu Akleh was shot during an Israeli military raid in the West Bank in May, and U.S. officials say she was likely killed unintentionally by Israeli troops. However, they did not say how they reached that conclusion, and the outcome angered many Palestinians, including her family, who accuse the U.S. of trying to help Israel evade responsibility.

Biden said the U.S. “will continue to insist on a full and transparent accounting of her death and will continue to stand up for media freedom everywhere in the world.”

He called her death “an enormous loss to the essential work of sharing with the world the story of the Palestinian people.”

Palestinian journalists wore black T-shirts with Abu Akleh’s picture and placed a poster of her on an empty chair in the room where the leaders spoke.

Earlier Friday, Biden appeared in east Jerusalem at the Augusta Victoria Hospital, which serves Palestinians, to discuss financial assistance for local healthcare. He proposed $100 million, which requires U.S. congressional approval, plus smaller amounts for other assorted programs.

Israel has also committed to upgrading wireless networks in the West Bank and Gaza, part of a broader effort to improve economic conditions.

“Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and dignity,” he said at the hospital. “And access to healthcare, when you need it, is essential to living a life of dignity for all of us.”

After Biden finished speaking, a woman who identified herself as a pediatric nurse at another healthcare facility thanked him for the financial assistance but said “we need more justice, more dignity.”

Biden’s trip to the West Bank was met with skepticism and bitterness among Palestinians who believe he has taken too few steps toward reviving peace talks, especially after President Donald Trump sidelined them while heavily favoring Israel.

The last serious round of negotiations aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state broke down more than a decade ago, leaving millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule.

Israel’s outgoing government has taken steps to improve economic conditions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But Yair Lapid, the caretaker prime minister, has no mandate to hold peace negotiations. Nov. 1 elections could also bring to power a right-wing government that is opposed to Palestinian statehood.

Meanwhile, the 86-year-old Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority administers parts of the occupied West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security, is more representative of the status quo than Palestinian aspirations.

His Fatah party lost an election, and control of Gaza, to the Islamic militant group Hamas more than 15 years ago. He called off the first national elections since then last year — blaming Israel — when Fatah appeared to be heading for another crushing defeat. Polls over the past year have consistently found that nearly 80% of Palestinians want him to resign.

Biden acknowledged earlier during the trip that a two-state solution won’t happen “in the near-term.” The U.S. also appears to have accepted defeat in its more modest push to reopen a Jerusalem consulate serving the Palestinians that was closed when Trump recognized the contested city as Israel’s capital.

Palestinian leaders also fear being further undermined by the Abraham Accords, a diplomatic vehicle for Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel despite the continuing occupation. Biden, who arrives Saudi Arabia later Friday to attend a summit of Arab leaders, hopes to broaden that process, which began under Trump.

Hours before Biden was set to become the first U.S. leader to fly directly from Israel to the kingdom, Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation announced it had opened the kingdom’s airspace to all air carriers that meet the authority’s requirements for overflights.

It signaled the end of its longstanding ban on Israeli flights over its territory — an incremental step toward the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel that was hailed by Biden.

There had been hardly any mention of the Palestinians over the past two days as Biden showered Israel with praise, holding it up as a democracy that shares American values. At a news conference with Biden, Lapid evoked the U.S. civil rights movement to portray Israel as a bastion of freedom.

It all reeked of hypocrisy to Palestinians, who have endured 55 years of military occupation with no end in sight.

“The idea of shared values actually makes me sick to my stomach,” said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and political analyst. “I don’t think Israeli values are anything that people should be striving towards.”

Both Biden and Lapid said they support an eventual two-state solution but their approach, often referred to as “economic peace,” has limitations.

“Mr. Biden is trying to marginalize the Palestinian issue,” said Mustafa Barghouti, a veteran Palestinian activist. “If he does not allow Palestinians to have their rights, then he is helping Israel kill and end the very last possibility of peace.”

The Palestinian goal of an independent state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — territories Israel seized in the 1967 Mideast war — appears more distant than ever.

Israel is expanding settlements in annexed east Jerusalem and the West Bank, which are now home to some 700,000 Jewish settlers. The Palestinians view the sprawling, suburb-like settlements as the main obstacle to peace because they carve up the land on which a Palestinian state would be established. Most of the world considers the settlements illegal.

Well-known human rights groups have concluded that Israel’s seemingly permanent control over millions of Palestinians amounts to apartheid. One of those groups, Israel’s own B’Tselem, hung banners in the West Bank that were visible from the presidential motorcade.

Israel rejects that label as an attack on its very existence, even though two former Israeli prime ministers warned years ago that their country would be seen that way if it did not reach a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. The U.S. also rejects the apartheid allegations.

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Krauss reported from Ottawa. Megerian reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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