WASHINGTON – The Biden administration will restore diplomatic relations with the Palestinian Authority more than two years after President Donald J. Trump effectively ended them. The action signals a return to a more traditional and balanced approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict following policies of the Trump administration that were heavily focused on Israel.
The postponement, which will include resumption of American aid to the Palestinians, was announced on Tuesday in a speech given by Richard Mills, the acting US Ambassador to the United Nations.
Mr Mills also reiterated his support for a “friendly two-state solution” between Israel and the Palestinians, “in which Israel lives in peace and security alongside a viable Palestinian state”. And he called on the parties to refrain from unilateral measures such as the annexation of territories and settlement activities by Israel or incitement to violence by the Palestinians, which could make such an outcome difficult.
Analysts and regional leaders say the prospects for an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal are worse than it has been for decades. The parties have all but ceased communications, the Palestinian leaders unceremoniously rejected a peace plan offered by the Trump White House last year, and the issue is not one of Mr Biden’s top foreign policy priorities.
However, the announcement is part of a broader return to previous United States foreign policy practices under Mr Biden and an end to the open hostility between Washington and the Palestinians fueled by the Trump administration. Under the leadership of his son-in-law Jared Kushner, Mr. Trump openly punished the Palestinians in order to force them to make unsuccessful concessions to Israel.
The policy change was quickly welcomed by Palestinian leaders and supporters of a negotiated settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.
“This is exactly the kind of quick action the government needs to take to restore American credibility as a diplomatic mediator between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Jeremy Ben-Ami, president of J Street, a liberal advocacy group seeking an Israeli settlement with supports the Palestinians. “Undoing the terrible damage wrought by the Trump administration begins with re-establishing a working relationship with the Palestinian leadership and people.”
Mr Mills said the Biden administration would “take steps to reopen diplomatic missions closed by the previous US administration” without giving details. In addition to closing the Palestinian Mission in Washington in September 2018, the Trump administration also closed the United States Consulate in East Jerusalem.
Mr Biden has no easy way to reopen a Palestinian mission in Washington. A law passed by Congress in 1987 blocked the right of Palestinians to open an office in America. Successive presidents have been able to circumvent the legislation with a waiver, but subsequent laws passed in 2015 and 2018 limit the president’s ability to circumvent the previous restriction.
The announcement was nonetheless warmly welcomed by Palestinian officials, who see the tone of the Biden administration as a welcome change from the cold shoulder Mr Trump has offered.
“For the first time, President Biden’s administration has officially expressed its position on the peace process and the two-state solution,” said Ahmed Majdalani, a member of the Executive Committee of the Palestine Liberation Organization and Minister for Social Development at the Palestinian Authority, in response to the announcement . “We believe this position represents an important positive step on the way to restoring bilateral US-Palestine relations and opens the door wide to restoring the peace process through multilateral international sponsorship.”
Mr Mills also said that Mr Biden intended to “restore US aid programs that support economic development and humanitarian aid to the Palestinian people”.
In 2018, the Trump administration cut economic aid to the Palestinians by $ 200 million and cut annual funding of around $ 350 million for a United Nations agency to assist Palestinian refugees.
“We do not see these steps as a favor for the Palestinian leadership,” he added. “US aid goes to millions of ordinary Palestinians and helps create a stable environment that benefits both Palestinians and Israelis.”
At the same time, Trump ended Washington’s opposition to Israeli settlements in the West Bank, despite not supporting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s speech on territorial annexation.
As an alternative, the Trump administration brokered diplomatic agreements between Israel and some of its Arab neighbors to assure Mr. Netanyahu that he will not continue the annexation for the time being, even though he has not given up the idea. The Israeli leader is facing national elections for the fourth time in two years after the Israeli coalition government failed to stick together.
Speaking to the United Nations Security Council, Mills said the Biden government welcomes “the recent normalization agreements” between Israel and Arab states, including the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan. But he added that “Arab-Israeli normalization is not a substitute for Israeli-Palestinian peace”.
He added that “the US will maintain its unwavering support for Israel” and “will continue its longstanding policy of opposing unilateral resolutions and other actions in international forums that unfairly sing out Israel”. While the Democratic Party has become more critical of Israeli politics in recent years, Mr Biden’s positions are more centrist and he is less likely to criticize the country than other Democrats.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry declined to comment.
This month, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas announced a schedule for the first Palestinian elections in at least 15 years. This was seen in part as an attempt to gain favor with Mr. Biden.
Mr. Mills is the United Nations Chargé d’Affaires. Mr. Biden has appointed Linda Thomas-Greenfield, a Career State Department official, as its permanent ambassador to the panel.
Patrick Kingsley reported from Jerusalem and Mohammed Najib from Ramallah, West Bank.