On his recent trip to Israel and the West Bank, President Joe Biden’s efforts to rebuild ties with the Palestinian Authority did not go over well in Ramallah. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas reportedly described the visit as a “big zero,”, since Biden did not push for restarting the peace process, or reopening the PLO office in Washington or the U.S. consulate general in Jerusalem.

If these were Abbas’ expectations, it is understandable why he emerged from Biden’s visit disappointed. It is also understandable why Abbas would see these achievements as necessary to promoting robust dialogue between the U.S. and the PA and reaffirming the U.S.’ credibility among Palestinians. That being said, it was evident long before Air Force One touched down at Ben Gurion Airport that Biden was highly unlikely to make progress on these issues due to political, legal, and practical constraints beyond the president’s control. Going forward, if Abbas is serious about resetting the U.S.-Palestinian relationship and re-establishing trust between the U.S. government and the PA, he should lower his short-term expectations—and take action on his own to reduce the hurdles blocking Biden from taking more significant confidence-building steps vis-à-vis the Palestinians.

President Biden meets with President Abbas in Bethlehem, July 15, 2022

To begin with, President Biden’s gestures to the Palestinians, while far from groundbreaking, were hardly a “big zero.”  During the visit, the United States announced $316 million in aid for the Palestinian people: $201 million for UNRWA, $15 million in humanitarian assistance amid food shortages caused by the war in Ukraine, and $100 million for the East Jerusalem hospital network that serves Palestinians. The United States also secured an additional $25 million each for the East Jerusalem hospitals from Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Kuwait, and the UAE. In his meeting with Abbas in Bethlehem, Biden reaffirmed his commitment to two states on the basis of the 1967 lines and called for a “full and transparent accounting” of the killing of journalist Shireen Abu Akleh. He also stated that Jerusalem’s boundaries were to be determined by negotiations and even traveled to East Jerusalem without official Israeli escort and without an Israeli flag on his car, risking diplomatic blowback from Israel. These were clearly tacit acknowledgments of Palestinian national rights in the city, despite the administration’s denial that they carried any political connotation. All of these steps mark a stark departure from the path taken by the Trump administration, which rolled back aid to the Palestinians and undermined the political horizon for two states.

Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem

Two of the high-profile items on President Abbas’ wishlist remain at an impasse given the Israeli domestic political context: restarting the peace process and reopening the consulate general in Jerusalem, which had been used to liaise with the Palestinians. The former is inherently political and the latter is highly politicized; both would require the consent of the Israeli government. Newly-minted Prime Minister Yair Lapid openly (albeit quietly) supports a two-state solution and is far more dovish on the Palestinian issue than former Prime Ministers Bennett and Netanyahu, but he is in no position to take any meaningful political steps regarding the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a caretaker prime minister fighting to retain the premiership. While President Biden had promised to reopen the consulate prior to entering office, his administration encountered resistance from the Bennett-Lapid government, who argued that the move would undermine Israeli sovereignty in the city and would topple their fragile coalition, which Biden was unwilling to risk. A similar dynamic endures today: given that President Biden would like to see Lapid remain in Balfour and would prefer to avoid a Netanyahu comeback, it would be unwise to pressure Israel into making “concessions” to the Palestinians and force Lapid to choose between rebuking the United States or alienating the Israeli electorate and his centrist base. Israeli politics aside, President Biden has made it clear that he does not intend to prioritize the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and expend political capital pushing for negotiations when they are unlikely to bear any fruit. Abbas should not set himself and his people up for disappointment by asking for things that are clearly contrary to President Biden’s interests, if not entirely out of his reach.

The former U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem by Magister, licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 (License linked to image)

Reopening the PLO office in Washington would be an even thornier matter. Prior to its closure under President Trump in 2018, it served as Palestinians’ sole diplomatic mission to the United States and as a central vehicle for U.S.-Palestinian ties, including engagement with members of Congress and the American public. As a legal basis for shutting down the PLO mission, the Trump administration argued that the Palestinians were not engaging in negotiations in Israel, and thus were ineligible to continue receiving a waiver to a 1987 law outlawing the PLO from operating in the United States. Since the mission was shuttered, Congress passed the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act, which would allow U.S. citizens to sue the PLO if it reopened an office in the U.S. due to the PA’s policy of financially supporting Palestinians imprisoned by Israel and the families of Palestinians killed by Israel, many of whom are terrorists. The PA would become liable for hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. courts. Again, the issue is out of President Biden’s hands, even if he theoretically does support reopening the mission in order to bolster diplomatic engagement with the Palestinian people. 

To move this issue forward, the onus is on the Palestinian Authority. As Michael Koplow and Sander Gerber recently wrote, transforming the prisoner and martyr payments into a social welfare system based on need would alleviate Congressional restrictions on the PLO and PA’s activities in the United States, per the Anti-Terrorism Clarification Act. Doing so would also end the Taylor Force Act’s restrictions on the U.S. providing foreign aid that directly benefit the Palestinian Authority. Most importantly, reforming the payments would demonstrate to the U.S.—and to Israel—that the Palestinian Authority does not support terrorism and is worth engaging with as a regional partner. 

As other countries in the region deepen their ties with Israel both covertly and overtly, seemingly at the expense of prioritizing the Palestinian issue, Palestinians feel increasingly abandoned by and alienated from the Arab world. Given growing fatigue with the Palestinian cause among traditional Sunni Arab allies, the Palestinian Authority should be pushing for deeper diplomatic ties with others in the region and, most critically, with the United States, which is uniquely positioned to extract concessions from Israel. But passivity is a losing strategy in combating international isolation, and if President Abbas truly desires closer ties with the U.S., he should heed calls for reform. In the meantime, unrealistic expectations detached from the political reality are a recipe for failure and disappointment.