BETHLEHEM, West Bank - President Joe Biden acknowledged Friday that an independent state for Palestinians "can seem so far away" as he confronted hopelessness about the stagnant peace process during a visit to the West Bank.
"The Palestinian people are hurting now," he said. "You can just feel it. Your grief and frustration. In the United States, we can feel it."
Biden commented during a joint appearance in Bethlehem with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Although he’s announced $316 million in financial assistance for the Palestinians during his visit, there’s no clear path to getting peace talks back on track.
"Even if the ground is not ripe at this moment to restart negotiations, the United States and my administration will not give up on bringing the Palestinians and the Israelis, both sides, closer together," he said.
Biden said the "Palestinian people deserve a state of their own that’s independent, sovereign, viable and contiguous. Two states for two peoples, both of whom have deep and ancient roots in this land, living side by side in peace and security."
Abbas, in his own remarks, said it was time to "turn the page on the Israeli occupation on our land." He also said Israel "cannot continue to act as a state above law."
Biden was welcomed to Bethlehem by a pair of Palestinian children, who gave him a bouquet of flowers, and a band that played the U.S. national anthem.
Earlier in the day, he appeared at the East Jerusalem Hospital Network, which serves Palestinians, to discuss financial assistance for local healthcare. He's proposed $100 million, which requires U.S. congressional approval, in addition to $201 million for the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, plus smaller amounts for other assorted programs.
Israel has also committed to upgrading wireless networks in the West Bank and Gaza, part of a broader effort to improve economic conditions.
"Palestinians and Israelis deserve equal measures of freedom, security, prosperity and dignity," he said. "And access to healthcare, when you need it, is essential to living a life of dignity for all of us."
When Biden finished speaking at the hospital, a woman who identified herself as a pediatric nurse at another healthcare facility thanked him for the financial assistance but said "we need more justice, more dignity."
Biden's trip to the West Bank is being met with skepticism and bitterness among Palestinians who believe Biden has taken too few steps toward rejuvenating peace talks, especially after President Donald Trump sidelined them while heavily favoring Israel.
The last serious round of negotiations aimed at creating an independent Palestinian state broke down more than a decade ago, leaving millions of Palestinians living under Israeli military rule.
Israel’s outgoing government has taken steps to improve economic conditions in the occupied West Bank and Gaza. But Yair Lapid, the caretaker prime minister, does not have a mandate to hold peace negotiations, and Nov. 1 elections could bring to power a right-wing government that is opposed to Palestinian statehood.
Meanwhile, the 86-year-old Abbas, whose Palestinian Authority administers parts of the occupied West Bank and cooperates with Israel on security, is more representative of the status quo than Palestinian aspirations.
His Fatah party lost an election, and control of Gaza, to the Islamic militant group Hamas more than 15 years ago. He called off the first national elections since then last year — blaming Israel — when Fatah appeared to be heading for another crushing defeat. Polls over the past year have consistently found that nearly 80% of Palestinians want him to resign.
Biden acknowledged this week that while he supports a two-state solution, it won't happen "in the near-term." The U.S. also appears to have accepted defeat in its more modest push to reopen a Jerusalem consulate serving the Palestinians that was closed when Trump recognized the contested city as Israel's capital.
Palestinian leaders also fear being further undermined by the Abraham Accords, a diplomatic vehicle for Arab nations to normalize relations with Israel despite the continuing occupation. Biden, who heads next to Saudi Arabia to attend a summit of Arab leaders, hopes to broaden that process, which began under Trump.
Hours before Biden was set to become the first U.S. leader to fly directly from Israel to the kingdom, Saudi Arabia’s General Authority of Civil Aviation announced early Friday "the decision to open the Kingdom’s airspace for all air carriers that meet the requirements of the Authority for overflying."
It signaled the end of its longstanding ban on Israeli flights overflying its territory — an incremental step toward the normalization of relations between Saudi Arabia and Israel that builds on the strong, but informal ties the erstwhile foes have developed in recent years over their shared concerns about Iran’s growing influence in the region.
Biden hailed the decision in a statement Friday as an important step to "help build momentum toward Israel's further integration into the region."
There's been hardly any mention of the Palestinians over the past two days, as Biden has showered Israel with praise, holding it up as a democracy that shares American values. At a news conference with Biden, Lapid evoked the U.S. civil rights movement to portray Israel as a bastion of freedom.
It all reeked of hypocrisy to Palestinians, who have endured 55 years of military occupation with no end in sight.
"The idea of shared values actually makes me sick to my stomach," said Diana Buttu, a Palestinian lawyer and political analyst. "I don’t think Israeli values are anything that people should be striving towards."
Both Biden and Lapid said they supported an eventual two-state solution in order to ensure that Israel remains a Jewish-majority state. But their approach, often referred to as "economic peace," has limitations.
"Mr. Biden is trying to marginalize the Palestinian issue," said Mustafa Barghouti, a veteran Palestinian activist. "If he does not allow Palestinians to have their rights, then he is helping Israel kill and end the very last possibility of peace."
At this point, the Palestinian goal of an independent state in east Jerusalem, the West Bank and Gaza — territories Israel seized in the 1967 Mideast war — appears more distant than ever.
Israel is expanding settlements in annexed east Jerusalem and the West Bank, which are now home to some 700,000 Jewish settlers. The Palestinian view the settlements — many of which resemble sprawling suburbs — as the main obstacle to peace, because they carve up the land on which a Palestinian state would be established. Most of the world considers them illegal.
Well-known human rights groups have concluded that Israel's seemingly permanent control over millions of Palestinians amounts to apartheid. One of those groups, Israel's own B'Tselem, hung banners in the West Bank that were visible from the presidential motorcade.
Israel rejects that label as an attack on its very existence, even though two former Israeli prime ministers warned years ago that their country would be seen that way if it did not reach a two-state agreement with the Palestinians. The U.S. also rejects the apartheid allegations.
Other banners along the motorcade route called for justice for Palestinian-American journalist Shireen Abu Akleh, who was killed during an Israeli military raid in the West Bank in May. Israel says she might have been struck by Palestinian gunfire, while investigations by The Associated Press and other media outlets support Palestinian witnesses who say she was shot by Israeli forces.
The U.S. says she was likely killed unintentionally by Israeli troops, without saying how it reached those conclusions. That angered many Palestinians, including Abu Akleh's family, who accused the U.S. of trying to help Israel evade responsibility for her death.
In Bethlehem, Palestinian journalists covering Biden's visit wore black T-shirts with Abu Akleh’s image on the front in solidarity with their slain colleague.
Krauss reported from Ottawa. Megerian reported from Washington. Associated Press writers Josef Federman in Jerusalem and Zeke Miller in Washington contributed to this report.