Nabil Amr
Palestinian writer and politician

Biden in Bethlehem

We do not need to wait for the official statements usually issued after official US visits to look into the second stop on their trip, Bethlehem. Situated between two major stops, it is akin to a comma between two lines.

The visit to Bethlehem was preceded by developments that set the stage and practical expectations, which are based on how the Americans understand the Palestinian grievances that President Mahmoud Abbas has reiterated, which, in turn, speak to the nominal US position on the Palestinian-Israeli question, though the Palestinians are aware that this rhetoric does not translate into actions. The shift in US policy from the old formula in which financial and administrative facilitations were made in parallel with political steps to a formula based purely on financial and administrative solutions worries the Palestinians more than it reassures them. It has been said a thousand times that financial support cannot replace progress on the political track.

Biden’s visit is shorter, but it has many parallels with Bill Clinton’s visit to Gaza and Bethlehem so many years ago. When Clinton was there, a massive American flag was laid on the façade of a ten-storey building in celebration. The Rashad al-Shawa Cultural Center, the largest in Gaza and perhaps in Palestine as a whole, was home to a host of political, social and syndical activities held in celebration of the president of the largest country in the world’s visit.

These events also demonstrated the great enthusiasm for the removal of two paragraphs of the Palestinian National Charter, a decision that emphasized the sincerity of the Palestinians’ intention to make a fresh start and build lasting peace with Israel. Those organizing the festivities did not anticipate Gaza falling into the hands of Hamas just a few years later. They did not realize that the peace they had sponsored and been promised would morph into a series of unprecedentedly devastating wars.

That huge flag was folded as flags are folded in rituals celebrating the funeral of an American soldier or officer; it wasn’t folded only during the rule of Hamas but also during the rule of Fatah, whose leader received the American president while the desired peace is on its deathbed- a peace whose death everyone fears, terrified of its catastrophic unpredictable repercussions.

President Biden offers respirators to this dying body, visiting a Jerusalem hospital without an Israeli escort and offering financial support to the health facilities and perhaps to the authorities’ budget, as well as talk of a two-state solution, which continues to dominate US political rhetoric, with the idea put forward whenever needed.

There was no massive American flag this time. Indeed, there was not even one the size of a rearview mirror beside the one demanded by protocol and decency. Biden will leave Bethlehem after having stayed for a few minutes to visit Jerusalem. He will then head to Ben Gurion Airport and take a flight to Jeddah.

Abbas will return to his headquarters in Ramallah after having met his prominent guest with a list of demands that he usually describes as simple, just like Arafat. I am not asking for the moon... I am asking for an end to the occupation of my country, an end to settlements, and the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital Al-Quds Al-Sharif (Jerusalem)- the term Al-Sharif, a title Muslims give the city, is a politely worded stand-in for East (Jerusalem)-, and a solution for the refugee question that is in line with international law and UN resolutions.”

They are undoubtedly just demands. Every previous American president elected since his term began has heard them, and they will certainly be heard by the next one. However, as far as Biden, the latest US President to visit, is concerned, they are great in every way besides in practice. The man does not hide his sympathy for the suffering of the Palestinians nor his understanding of the rationale of their demands. However, despite this sympathy and understanding, he sees them as demands that cannot be met in the foreseeable future. Any Palestinian demand, be it small or large, must pass through an Israeli gate closed shut with only a narrow window through which facilitations can pass.

Palestinian officials know this well, not by inference but thanks to direct and explicit US statements. However, these officials, especially President Abbas, who has a wealth of experience in how the US engages with the Palestinians, are still working under the formula of demanding a lot and accepting little they see as imposed by realpolitik. This was the case before and during the visit, and it will continue to be the case for a long time.