The “Jerusalem context” in which the Presidential visit took place is of special significance. The Trump administration had recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (albeit with undetermined borders), moved the US Embassy there and shut down the US Consulate in the city. In 2018, President Trump explicitly stated that “Jerusalem had been taken off the table,” and Israeli government policies have since reflected this assumption. Among else, the goal of the new Biden Administration was to “put Jerusalem back on the table”, and to do so in a manner that was convincing to the Palestinians without being blatantly adversarial with Israel.
Considering those as key benchmarks against which the Presidential visit should be measured, here are a few key takeaways:
- Re-opening of the US Consulate: President Biden has repeatedly reiterated a promise to reopen the US Consulate in Jerusalem. Fulfilling that has become one of the major litmus tests for the Palestinians by which the seriousness of the United States in re-engaging as a fair broker will be measured. In the face of adamant Israeli opposition, the administration has been reluctant to force the issue, while continuing to declare that the promise will be kept. The issue of the Consulate was conspicuous by its absence during the Presidential visit. National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan released and then retracted a statement on the intent to re-open it. Israel was very satisfied by all this, and the Palestinians were no less disappointed. The Consulate remains a troubling, unresolved issue for the US.
- Visit to East Jerusalem: The most significant part of the Presidential visit to East Jerusalem was the very fact that it took place. It was the first-of-its-kind Presidential visit to East Jerusalem’s Augusta Victoria Hospital (except for the holy sites in the Old City). The visit occurred without the accompaniment of Israeli officials (much to Israel’s chagrin) and without flags on the convoy. The visit signalled a modest, tacit recognition of Palestinian presence and stake in the East Jerusalem. The President’s address was short on tangible deliverables, and primarily addressed humanitarian and economic concerns (e.g. funding for East Jerusalem Hospital Network), rather than anything of concrete political significance. However, symbolism holds great weight in this conflict, and the visit left no doubt that the US continues to view the status of Jerusalem as a permanent status issue to be resolved through negotiations.
- Putting Jerusalem on the table: In addition to the East Jerusalem visit, the President’s pronouncements modestly indicated that Jerusalem was indeed “on the table.” While refraining from reaffirming East Jerusalem as the future capital of a Palestinian state, he stated that, “the specific boundaries of sovereignty in Jerusalem must be resolved through final status negotiations [between the sides]. In Bethlehem, the President was explicit: “Jerusalem is central to the national visions of both Palestinians and Israelis — to your histories, to your faiths, to your futures.”.
- Jordan’s role as custodian: The President reaffirmed that the status quo of Jerusalem’s holy sites must be preserved and “with the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan continuing to serve as custodian.” Amid an erosion of the status quo on the Temple Mount/Haram al-Sharif, the undermining of Jordan’s role as custodian and ongoing efforts to advance Saudi-Israel normalization, the US delivered a palpable, timely statement to this end.
- Faith dimension of the conflict: In his statement in Bethlehem the President emphasized that, “Jerusalem must be a city for all its people — its holy sites preserving the status quo….so many places of meaning and significance to Muslims, Christians, and Jews, we must all be free to practice our faiths in peace, in safety, and in dignity…We cannot wait for a peace agreement to be reached or for every issue to be resolved.” Underscoring this, he disclosed his awareness of, and unease with, the troubling trends of religious radicalisation in the city, and with the vulnerability of Christian communities in particular. This appears to go beyond rhetoric and highlights an acute concern of this administration. However, had the message had been delivered in East Jerusalem, its gravity would have been elevated.
- Settlement plans: Concern over E-1 was articulated by the President in a private setting, rather than called out publicly. This is somewhat characteristic of the administration in the post-Netanyahu era – refraining from confronting or engaging the current government in any blatantly adversarial manner – something that could impact or destabilize the domestic political context.
- Normalization: The statements and messages delivered in Jeddah by the members of the GCC+3 explicitly impressed that progress on the Palestinian issue is needed to legitimize any further steps. Despite it serving as an all-Muslim matter with room for leverage and consensus-building, the issues of Jerusalem in general and of Al-Aqsa in particular, were noticeably absent from statements made by the Gulf and Arab states.
Extracts of relevant communiques from the Biden visit here.