Biden backs Palestinian state but admits it’s ‘far away’

President Biden on Friday supported an independent Palestinian state, although he acknowledged that such a historic event was “far away” and acknowledged despair of the Palestinian people have long been disillusioned with their struggle for equal rights.

“Even if the ground is not yet ripe for resuming negotiations at this point, the United States and my administration will not give up on bringing Palestinians and Israelis closer together, on both sides,” Biden said during a joint speech with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

“I know the two-state goal seems so far away, while the indignities, such as restrictions on movement and travel, or daily concern for the safety of your children, are real and urgent,” Biden added. “The Palestinian people are suffering right now. You can just feel it. Your grief and disappointment. In the United States, we feel it.”

Biden’s remarks are unlikely to reassure Palestinians disillusioned with US policy. They are irritated, in particular, by the fact that Biden has not reversed the actions of the Trump era, including the former president’s statement that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel. This was a controversial decision because the Palestinians claim part of the contested holy city as the capital of a future state. They are also unhappy that Israeli settlers are steadily eating up land, making it difficult for them to govern a future independent country.

“Peace begins with Palestine and Jerusalem.” Abbas said. After decades of Israeli control, the Palestinian leader said, “it is not yet time for this occupation to end and for our resilient people to regain their freedom and independence.”

Biden’s private meeting with Abbas at the government compound in Bethlehem was attended by many other Palestinian officials, including Hussein Sheikh, a senior member of the Palestine Liberation Organization who is often described as the aging Abbas’ successor.

Biden’s four hours in Bethlehem and East Jerusalem were the only hint of Palestinians on the president’s itinerary during a four-day trip to the Middle East that included meetings with leaders from Israel, Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states.

As he entered Bethlehem, Biden was greeted by large banners that read, “Mr. President, this is apartheid,” which was installed by an Israeli human rights group. Portraits of a murdered Palestinian American journalist Shirin Abu Akle also appeared on the walls of some buildings along the roads to Bethlehem.

Journalists who attended the Biden-Abbas joint speech also took a symbolic step to draw attention to the killing by leaving an empty seat in the press area.

She was killed, most likely by Israeli forces, while covering an Israeli military raid in the West Bank city of Jenin on 11 May. Her death and the US’s unwillingness to blame Israel infuriated the Palestinians.

Biden said in a joint speech with Abbas that the US government “will continue to insist on full and transparent responsibility for her death.”

“Her death is a huge loss to an important cause – to share the history of the Palestinian people with the world,” he added.

Expectations were low even before Biden’s arrival. The Biden administration has resumed diplomatic relations with the Palestinians and restored financial aid that was cut off by former President Trump. But the White House has not reversed Trump’s other actions, failing to reopen, for example, the US consulate in East Jerusalem that served the Palestinians and was closed by Trump.

National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, speaking to reporters on Friday aboard Air Force One en route to Saudi Arabia, said Biden and Abbas had discussed the consulate and US officials “continue to engage” with Palestinians and Israelis. But for 18 months there was no movement.

“I think we expect too much from [Biden] about Palestine,” Palestinian writer Mariam Barghouti tweeted on Friday. “It is older than the State of Israel, its ideology belongs to the era of colonial conquests. I don’t think this will change at the moment.”

In Bethlehem, Biden also visited the Church of the Nativity with several clergy who explained the intricate mosaics and Byzantine architecture. Christian tradition says that a small grotto under the center of the ancient church marks the birthplace of Jesus.

The White House said Biden’s visit to the church was meant to show support for Christians across the region who are facing attacks and expulsion. Palestinians are among the last native Christians left in the Holy Land, but many have immigrated to the US, Latin America and other countries.

Earlier Friday, Biden visited the Augusta Victoria Hospital, part of the East Jerusalem hospital chain that Biden said serves as the “backbone” of the healthcare system for Palestinians. His US funding was cut by Trump, with Biden pledging $100 million in new money.

A woman in the audience who identified herself as a nurse told Biden, “Thank you for your support, but we need more justice, we need more dignity.”

Birman reported from Jerusalem and Wilkinson from Washington.