Thomas-Greenfield’s Visit to Israel and Palestine: A Stark Asymmetry

The Biden Administration’s ambassador to the United Nations, Linda Thomas-Greenfield, visited Israel, the city of Ramallah in the West Bank, and Jordan in mid-November. This was the highest level US official to visit and meet with Palestinians. But there was an obvious asymmetry in the number of meetings, time spent, announcements, interviews, and bank of photos with Israeli leaders. There also was an asymmetry in the broad range of people and locales visited, which reflects the continued American bias in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

The Importance of the Palestinian Visit

Palestinian officials hailed the visit as positive and a change from the four years of the Trump Administration. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield coordinated with Riyad Mansour, the Palestinian envoy to the United Nations, before the visit. Mansour told this author that the visit by the most senior official of the Biden Administration was “a big change” from the years of the Trump Administration, during which staunchly pro-Israel officials, such as Ambassador Nikki Haley, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, and Vice President Mike Pence, came to the region. Thomas-Greenfield met with Mansour before preparing her visit and had a press conference call with Gaza-based Palestinian journalists. Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield also visited a Palestinian refugee camp run by UNRWA (the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees, which the Biden Administration has recently resumed funding) and met with Palestinian civil society leaders. She also was given a guided tour of the illegal Israeli settlements and settlement plans by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Her visit on November 17 concluded in Ramallah with a long and detailed meeting with the Palestinian leadership at President Abbas’s headquarters.

Palestinian officials hailed the visit as positive and a change from the four years of the Trump Administration.

Furthermore, Palestinian officials hail the success of the visit by the fact that the American ambassador made clear to every Israeli official she met—including the Israeli prime minister—Washington’s position that ”Israelis and Palestinians alike deserve equal measures of freedom, security, and prosperity,” according to a public readout of the meetings with Prime Minister Naftali Bennett and other Israeli leaders.

Palestinian officials in New York noted that the visit produced a willingness by the Biden Administration to accept some of the wording suggested by the Palestinian delegation to a statement that was read out by the Mexican delegate holding the presidency of the UN Security Council, Ambassador Juan Ramon de la Fuente, on the occasion of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People on November 29th. In the statement, de la Fuente, speaking on behalf of all members, including the United States, criticized Israel for the deteriorating situation on the ground including “settlement construction, demolition and confiscation of Palestinian property and evictions of Palestinians in East Jerusalem and settlers’ attacks across the occupied Palestinian territory.”

The Israeli visit

Thomas-Greenfield met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Foreign Minister and Alternate Prime Minister Yair Lapid, and Transportation Minister Merav Michaeli. She was keen to point out that both Israelis and Palestinians “deserve equal measures of freedom, security, and prosperity” which is the proper way “to advance prospects for a two-state solution.”

The ambassador also met a wide group of Israelis and paid special public attention to a meeting with the mother of an Israeli soldier whose body is being held by the Palestinian movement Hamas. Additionally, she traveled to different locales in Israel, including the Galilee, where she met the defense minister and also met Israeli army officers working on the Iron Dome.

Asymmetry and Accusation of Patronizing

Some non-official Palestinians noted the asymmetry and even patronizing attitude in the visit. Hanan Ashrawi, former member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s Executive Committee, slammed the African American ambassador as being “patronizing” in her attitudes toward the Palestinians. In response Thomas-Greenfield’s tweet about visiting the UNRWA school, Ashrawi wrote that “[F]or an African-American woman to adopt the patronizing tone & attitude of the colonial ‘white man’s burden’ is not only offensive but also a betrayal of our struggle against racism, misogyny & white supremacy. We know how to educate our children; just end #IsraeliApartheid.”

A look into the visit will show a much different approach, time, and breadth of visits in Israel than the visits to Palestine. In Israel, the ambassador spent two and a half days compared to barely a day in the Palestinian occupied territories.

A look into the visit will show a much different approach, time, and breadth of visits in Israel than the visits to Palestine. In Israel, the ambassador spent two and a half days compared to barely a day in the Palestinian occupied territories. She did not reciprocate her visit to the Yad Vashem Museum with another to the Church of Nativity in Bethlehem or any other Palestinian site or institution. While she held a press conference with the Israeli prime minister and gave two interviews to Israeli media (channel 13 and Ynet), the US team didn’t even post a photo of her meeting with Abbas on their various platforms.

The former activist and human rights advocate made no mention of the six reputable Palestinian human rights organizations that were accused by Israel, without evidence, of being “terrorist organizations,” an issue that her own State Department has questioned. While she met with the bereaved Israeli family, she didn’t even give any attention to the hundreds of Palestinian families awaiting Israel’s release of their loved ones’ remains, 82 of which are kept in refrigerated morgues.

It is not consistent to hear a member of the Biden Administration talk about attacks against Israel at the United Nations when Israel continues to ignore UN Security Council resolutions sanctioned by a previous Democratic administration. Israel’s own membership in the international body was concluded after pledges that have since been violated. In joining the United Nations on the third attempt, on May 1, 1949, “Israel vowed that it would pursue ‘no policies on any question which were inconsistent with … the resolutions of the [UN General] Assembly and the Security Council’.” Indeed, the topic of Israel’s illegal settlements that Ambassador Thomas-Greenfield discussed with both Defense Minister Gantz and Prime Minister Bennett has been an unabashed violation of the UN Security Council resolution passed during the last days of the Obama Administration in December 2016, when Biden was vice president.

Two Different Palestinian Views of the Visit

Some Palestinians saw in the visit to Ramallah November 17th by the American Ambassador a refreshing change and a step in the right direction while others saw in it a continuation of the attempt to perpetuate the status quo and defend Israel at all costs.

These two opposite Palestinian points of view were made crystal clear by the public and private pronouncements during and after the visit. One school of thought, to which Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas subscribes, has put all the Palestinian and Arab eggs in a single basket—that of diplomacy. This camp features two important parties: the United States and the United Nations. For the Abbas camp, both were represented in the high level day-long visit by the senior Biden diplomat. Until the November 17 visit of Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield to Ramallah, the only other non-security Biden Administration official who had visited Palestine was Hady Amr, an assistant deputy secretary of state.

The first school of thought espouses the clear goal of a two-state solution through diplomatic means led by various Palestinian government officials. However, the second school of thought—which, according to public opinion polls, might actually include the majority of the Palestinian population in the occupied territories—has offered a totally different perspective on what it expects.

The first group believes strongly in the need to establish an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel, agreeing that it is the most practical solution that has international support. The second group has lost trust in the two-state solution and is considering different ideas including one binational state based on the original pre-amended PLO charter, and the UN 1947 partition plan Resolution 181, which divided historic Palestine into a Jewish and an Arab state (with the exception of Jerusalem that was kept under the auspices of the corpus separatum concept).

Palestinian advocates, such as former Minister Ziad Abu Zayyad, publicly called for the return to the partition plan in an op-ed published in the leading Palestinian newspaper Al Quds on November 28, on the eve of the International Day of Solidarity with the Palestinian People. The day of solidarity was declared by the United Nations in 1977 as a way of reminding the world of the November 29, 1947 plan to partition Palestine.

The varying strategies have been highlighted by the schism that was created a year after the Palestinian parliamentary elections in 2006, in which supporters of the Islamic Resistance Movement won the majority seats in the 130-member Palestinian Legislative Council. The victorious Change and Reform List and its leader, Ismail Haniyeh, were then shunned by the international community. Many believe this action helped to trigger the deep split within Palestinian society, with Hamas controlling the Gaza Strip and the Palestine Liberation Organization leadership controlling the urban parts of West Bank cities. Haniyeh is now the secretary general of Hamas, living mostly abroad and directing a movement that has taken control of Gaza and is carrying out light military resistance to Israel. At the same time, he is suggesting that he can produce a better deal than the one that Abbas is offering because Hamas is able to pursue both resistance and diplomatic activities.

In the August 27 summit at the Oval Office, the Israeli prime minister made it clear to his American host that Israel has no intention of holding any talks with the Palestinian leadership.

While all the details of Palestinian life under occupation and lack of progress on implementing UN Security Council resolution 2334 (calling for an immediate halt to settlement building) were ignored, the most important issue was one that Thomas-Greenfield was unable or unwilling to discuss. In the August 27 summit at the Oval Office, the Israeli prime minister made it clear to his American host that Israel has no intention of holding any talks with the Palestinian leadership to end the decades-old Israeli occupation of Palestinian lands. Not only did Bennett make this statement to Biden, but he later boasted about it to the Jewish American community.

Some Palestinian officials point to the fact that the visit to Palestine by the US envoy to the United Nations succeeded in humanizing the Palestinian conflict and in opening the eyes of a senior US official to the gravity of Israel’s expansionist settlement claims. They insist that such visits will have a ripple effect over time in that they could potentially move many issues that have been blocked in the past in the United Nations.

In sum, Thomas-Greenfield’s visit broke no new ground. Palestinian government officials are hoping that it brought this high-ranking US official to see firsthand what life is like under occupation and how Israel’s illegal settlements are undermining the cause of peace. At the same time, Palestinian opposition leaders feel that the visit cemented even further the pro-Israel bias in the United States. They point to the hypocrisy of Washington’s lip service regarding support for a two-state solution without any serious effort to help end the occupation and ensure the right of Palestinians to national self-determination.