CHICAGO: US President Joe Biden wants to help build trust between the Israelis and Palestinians as a first step towards an enduring peace that might end the 73-year-old conflict, a State Department spokesman said on Wednesday.
This is Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s priority during his first official visit to the Middle East this week, according to Chris Hodges, the deputy assistant secretary for assistance coordination and press and public diplomacy at the State Department’s Bureau for Near Eastern Affairs.
He said that Blinken intends to meet with leaders on both sides of the conflict, and other Arab leaders in the region, to “create an environment” in which peace is achievable.
The secretary of state arrived in Jerusalem on Monday and announced a series of steps designed to restore trust, including an aid package worth more than $360 million and the reopening of the US consular offices in East Jerusalem that were the primary point of contact with Washington for the Palestinians until it was closed in 2018 by the Trump administration.
Speaking on Wednesday during an appearance on “The Ray Hanania Radio Show,” Hodges said there is an acceptance on both sides of the conflict that action is needed to create an environment in which trust can be built and peace efforts enhanced.
“It is a difficult environment right now in which to build trust,” he said. “That is something that doesn’t happen overnight.
“But the first step in building that trust, that understanding and that dialogue between Israelis and Palestinians is avoiding any action on either side that would be destabilizing or provocative. And that (includes) settlement expansion, evictions, incitement of violence. That (includes) the payment of money to the families of prisoners who are in jail for attacking, and in many cases killing, innocent civilians.
“Those things, on both sides, are issues that need to be addressed — and we need to and want to and are working with both sides to try to address those (issues) and build that trust and rapport that can help bring those two sides together.”
The $360 million US aid package includes $38 million in new funding to support humanitarian efforts in the West Bank and Gaza, nearly $33 million for the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East in support of its operations in the territories, and an additional $5.5 million for humanitarian partners.
“This critical assistance will support humanitarian organizations to provide emergency shelter, food, relief items and health care, as well as mental health and psycho-social support for those who have experienced trauma,” Blinken said when he announced the details.
“The secretary has said on a couple of occasions … that Israelis and Palestinians equally have a right to live in security, enjoy prosperity, and freedom and stability,” Hodges said. “A big part of what we are trying to do is to emphasize that, not just on the Israeli side but the Palestinian side, too.”
He added that the Biden administration is determined to address the “root causes” of the conflict in an effort to move forward.
“The first (step) is to meet with leaders on the Israeli and Palestinian sides, and meet with regional leaders in Cairo and Amman, to make sure the ceasefire that was brokered some days ago continues to hold,” Hodges said. “I think that beyond that it is trying to address the root causes of this conflict, the things that cause this conflict and the exchange of hostilities to spark up in the first place.
“And I think as part of that effort, what the Secretary wants to do is to reaffirm our commitment to addressing those causes and trying to create an environment that is conducive for a more sustainable peace to take hold. And, not least, to signal our re-engagement and our connection to the Palestinian people.”
He added: “It’s not just about to getting the ceasefire to hold, although that is important. It is about addressing some of these underlying issues and it is about working slowly and deliberately because these are tough issues. (It is) about working toward an environment where Palestinians can really access that equal right to security and stability and prosperity.
“As of (today) we are not there but we want to try to get there — and there is a lot of work to do on that front. But as someone who was on the ground for five years working on these issues, I can tell you there is a cadre of dedicated folks out there, and here (in the US), who understand (the situation) and engage with Palestinians every day and who are committed to trying to get this done.”
Despite the restoration of aid and other services to the Palestinians, many remain skeptical about whether the Biden administration can make any progress in the peace process. They question whether the president can succeed where his predecessors failed, and many feel he is more critical of the Palestinians and must be tougher in denouncing the actions of the Israeli authorities.
“The fact is the status quo for the Palestinians is not a tolerable status quo, so restoring the calm of the status quo is a problem there and I wonder to what extent the secretary of state fully grasps that reality,” said Brad Roth, a professor of political science and law at Wayne State University in Detroit.
“The peace process has been fetishized so that it becomes sort of an end in itself. And, in some sense, for the State Department I think maybe it is an end in itself, because what they want is calm and what they want is to avoid distraction and they want to be able to focus their attention safely on other things. And that is a luxury that Palestinians don’t have.”
Despite some concerns, however, Roth said he welcomes the recent developments.
“It’s encouraging that there is discussion about what security means for Palestinians as well as what it means for Israelis,” he said.
“On the other hand, biting down on these distractions, like payments to (families of) people who are jailed by Israel, is kind of a sign of the willingness of the administration to allow itself to be derailed from any serious critique of the foundational problems that exist.”
* The Ray Hanania Radio Show is broadcast live every Wednesday morning on the US Arab Radio Network in Detroit on WNZK AM 690 and in Washington D.C. on WDMV AM 700. The show is also live streamed on the Arab News Facebook Page at Facebook.com/ArabNews. Visit ArabNews.com/RayRadioShow for more information and to listen to current and previous shows.