Blinken visits the Palestinian West Bank, where residents are disillusioned and leaders are angry
Los Angeles Times February 1, 2023
DEIR DIBWAN, West Bank (Tribune News Service) — Maisoon Ali, a Palestinian banker, has a message for visiting U.S Secretary of State Antony J. Blinken.
She wants him to understand and acknowledge that the vision of an independent Palestinian nation living alongside Israel — the two-state solution favored by most U.S. administrations for years — is dead and buried.
"It has been killed," said Ali, 56. "I can't even dream it. I don't see it. … This is what I want the secretary to hear."
Blinken, wrapping up a three-day visit to the Middle East on Tuesday, met with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and other officials in the West Bank city of Ramallah, a day after extended consultations with Israel's prime minister, president and foreign minister.
Abbas, 87, had tough words for Israel, its continued occupation of Palestinian territories and the failure of the "international community" to stop actions by Israel to seize Palestinian-claimed land and thwart efforts by the Palestinian Authority to find justice in international forums — efforts that Washington firmly opposes.
At every turn in this visit, Blinken has reiterated his government's long-standing support for the two-state solution, even as its prospects seem more distant than ever — to both Israelis and Palestinians.
The far right that now governs Israel has long opposed independence for the approximately 4.5 million Palestinians who live in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
For the Palestinians themselves, rejection of the two-state solution has been a slower evolution.
In an independent Palestine next to Israel, which has insisted on keeping control of some of the future state's borders and airspace, "we would just have the name, Israel the power," said 80-year-old Mohammed Mustafa, another resident of Deir Dibwan, who lived in the U.S. for many years and said he fought for the U.S. military in Vietnam.
Years of failed, occasionally bad-faith negotiations, interspersed with periods of violence from both sides, have only achieved a modicum of sovereignty for Palestinians while Israel continued to permit tens of thousands of Jewish settlers to move into West Bank lands claimed by the Palestinians. The heavily guarded Israeli settlements have effectively made creating a contiguous state next to impossible.
"The two-state solution was killed by the Israelis," Ali said. "I know (Blinken) knows it's not working. … I look for the American government to take a stand and say it has been killed by Israel."
Ali was born in this affluent village near Ramallah, heavily populated with Palestinian Americans, and lived in the United States more than half her life. She holds a U.S. passport, but because of her Palestinian birth is barred from using Israel's airport and suffers other indignities, she said.
Opinion polls have shown support for the two-state vision declining steadily among Palestinians, reflecting frustration and a sense that a viable state will never happen. Instead, many Palestinians now support the so-called one-state solution, a single country with both Israelis and Palestinians but, importantly, one with equal rights for both communities. At the same time, a majority doubts Israel would ever grant such liberties to Palestinians.
One set of calculations behind that scenario suggests the higher Palestinian birthrate would eventually mean Palestinians would outnumber Israeli Jews. Failure to give the majority full rights would, in theory, be untenable, but so would the ability to maintain Israel's identity as a Jewish and democratic state.
The latest poll by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, conducted in December and released last week, showed support for a two-state solution that had been at roughly 43% for both Palestinians and Israelis in 2020 had fallen to 33% among Palestinians and 34% among Israelis.
It was the lowest level of support for the concept among Palestinians and Israelis since the poll was first conducted in June 2016, the head of the center, Khalil Shikaki, said in a statement announcing the survey.
"The hardening of attitudes is driven by deep concerns about the ultimate goals of the other side," he said. "Indeed, perceptions of the other have worsened significantly since mid-2017 and are currently at a low point, with the two sides a mirror image of one another."
After his meeting with Blinken, Abbas also blamed Israel for destroying the two-state solution and for stoking violence in the West Bank. But he said he was willing to work with the United States to open dialogue and "end the occupation."
Standing with Abbas at the presidential headquarters in Ramallah to read statements before the press, Blinken said improvements in the living conditions, prosperity and peace for Palestinians were "best realized" by a two-state solution.
But he also acknowledged the deteriorating possibilities.
"What we are seeing is a shrinking horizon for hope, not an expanding one," he said. "And that has to change."
The secretary of State said he was assigning two senior staff members, Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf and Special Representative for Palestinian Affairs Hamy Amr, to stay behind and continue to work on defusing tensions. Though Blinken said the effort would build on ideas he and officials had come up with on the trip, the move might also reflect a lack of progress.
Blinken traveled into the West Bank in a convoy of armored vans and SUVs, driving on a well-maintained highway with walls on either side that tracks north from Jerusalem. Palestinians are not allowed to use the highway without special permission, even though it cuts through their land. Some exits are marked with red signs from the Israeli government that say, in three languages, "The entrance of Israeli citizens is forbidden."
Earlier Tuesday, Blinken met with the new Israeli defense minister, Yoav Gallant, in Jerusalem. Before Blinken arrived, a journalist asked Gallant how the security situation was going in the West Bank. He said Israeli forces were "doing what is necessary against terror."
After a Palestinian gunman shot and killed seven Jews on Friday at a synagogue near Jerusalem, the Israeli military has continued a campaign of raids and arrests in parts of the West Bank and Jerusalem. The synagogue shooting came 24 hours after a deadly attack by Israeli forces on the Jenin refugee camp in the West Bank. Ten people were killed — most of whom Israel identified as Palestinian militants, but at least one a civilian woman in her 60s.
Blinken has not condemned the Jenin raid but on Tuesday lamented the deaths of "innocent civilians" and said both sides should refrain from unilateral actions.
It is unclear, however, what control the aging Abbas and the fractious Palestinian Authority have over events in the West Bank. Abbas is regarded by many Palestinians as an unpopular leader who has overstayed his time in office and become ineffective. He has held on to office more than a decade past his term and refused to hold elections. Meanwhile, he has clamped down on critical media, dissidents and opponents. Other militant groups not loyal to the Palestinian Authority have sprung up in the West Bank and are more willing to use force to press their cause.
Asked if he had confidence in Abbas to fight terrorism and effectively promote Palestinian statehood, Blinken said in a news conference at the end of his trip that he would focus on what the Palestinian Authority does rather than on the actions of individual leaders.
"We're focused on what the Palestinian Authority is doing both to work to improve the lives of the Palestinian people, as well as to engage responsibly with Israel on, first and foremost, defusing the current situation, the current cycle of violence; reducing tensions, not escalating them; calming things down, not ramping things up," Blinken said.
During his appearance with Abbas, Blinken urged the Palestinian Authority to strengthen its institutions and governance practices.
Riman Barakat, a Palestinian resident of East Jerusalem, does not have to deal directly with the Palestinian Authority. But she knows how dispirited its citizens have been left by officials' repression and incompetence. But Barakat, who runs the Palestinian program at a multiethnic cultural center on the line that divides Israel and the West Bank in Jerusalem, puts more blame on the Biden administration's nearly unconditional support for Israel.
"A lot of people have lost hope from different officials coming and going," she said. "With every new administration, the president has to come here, but nothing ever comes of it. There are no results. We will believe it when we see it."
Barakat said President Trump's decision to move the U.S. Embassy from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem and close the U.S. Consulate in Jerusalem that catered to Palestinians was an enormous blow, because it ignored Palestinian claims to parts of Jerusalem.
"It was very violating," she said.
But worse, she said, is the Biden administration's unfulfilled promise to reopen the consulate.
"The bar for hope now is very low," she said.
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