President Biden’s Meeting with Mahmoud Abbas Is about Symbolism, Not Substance

July 11, 2022 | Ghaith al-Omari
About the author: Ghaith al-Omari is a senior fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. From 1999 to 2006 he served as an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team and participated in numerous rounds of negotiation at settings including the 2000 Camp David summit.

On his upcoming trip to the Middle East, Joe Biden is scheduled to visit Bethlehem to meet with the Palestinian Authority (PA) president Mahmoud Abbas, as well as the leaders of Israel and Saudi Arabia. Ghaith al-Omari examines the implications of the expected tête-à-tête:

Since Biden became president . . . he and his administration have rightly concluded that any major initiative to resolve the Israel-Palestinian conflict would be doomed to fail given the prevailing political atmosphere among both parties. Thus, while his team took quick action to reverse some of the Trump administration’s departures from traditional U.S. policy—such as reestablishing relations with the PA and resuming aid to the Palestinian people—it has assiduously avoided high-level entanglement.

Abbas is also presumably aware that no specific foreign-policy outcomes will be forthcoming. Accordingly, he may focus on portraying an uncompromising, principled stance to a skeptical—even critical—domestic audience. This likely means reiterating traditional Palestinian diplomatic positions and making specific demands related to U.S.-PA relations, such as reopening the east Jerusalem consulate, reopening the Palestine Liberation Organization representative office in Washington, and asking the United States to stop considering the PLO a terrorist organization. Although PA officials realize that these demands will not be met, they are probably hoping that tough rhetoric will be enough to appease the general public and fend off attacks from Hamas and other opponents.

In short, for both the White House and the PA, President Biden’s visit to Bethlehem is more about symbolism and optics than diplomatic objectives. The meeting itself is the objective, and the more uneventful it is, the more it will be deemed a success.

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