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Palestinian president hosts US delegation in Ramallah

Mahmoud Abbas reiterated request to have PLO removed from US terror list and that American consulate for East Jerusalem be reopened
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) meets with US Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf at the presidency headquarters in Ramallah, occupied West Bank, 11 June 2022 (AFP)

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas hosted on Saturday a US delegation led by Assistant Secretary of State for Near Eastern Affairs Barbara Leaf, ahead of an expected visit by US President Joe Biden.

Abbas reiterated his request to have the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) removed from the US list of terrorist entities during the meeting, his office said.

The Palestinian president also requested that the PLO's office in Washington and the American consulate for East Jerusalem be reopened, after both were closed under the Trump administration, the Palestinian presidency said in a statement, according to AFP.

Leaf, who began a three-day trip to the Palestinian territories and Israel on Saturday, met Abbas "to discuss the US-Palestinian relationship, US assistance to Palestinians, deepening ties and how Palestinians and Israelis alike deserve equal measures of freedom, security and prosperity," the State Department said.

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Meanwhile, the US on Thursday changed the title of its Palestinian Affairs Unit to Office of Palestinian Affairs (OPA), without defining it as a consulate. Before the announcement, it had been the US consulate in Jerusalem and a focus of Palestinian statehood goals in the city. 

The US consulate in East Jerusalem had served Palestinians for almost 175 years under several powers that controlled the holy city. It was shut down in March 2019 when then US President Donald Trump signalled support for Israel's claim on Jerusalem as its capital.

The unit "operates under the auspices of the US embassy in Jerusalem, and reports on substantive matters directly to the" State Department, an OPA spokesperson said, noting the new structuring was "to strengthen our diplomatic reporting and public diplomacy engagement".

"The name change was done to better align with state department nomenclature. The new OPA operating structure is designed to strengthen our diplomatic reporting and public diplomacy engagement."

According to Reuters, a senior Palestinian official said that Abbas had rejected alternatives to the reopening of the US consulate in Jerusalem, in a call with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken. 

Biden and Saudi Arabia

The move comes ahead of a possible visit of Biden to the region, with the US president saying he was considering a trip to Saudi Arabia, Israel and the Palestinian territories in July.

The possible visit to Saudi Arabia would be a stark reversal for Biden, after he called for Riyadh to be made a "pariah" during his campaign for the presidency. 

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Biden has prided himself as a champion of democracy against authoritarian regimes, charting a starkly different path from his predecessor Trump, who maintained a warm relationship with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS). 

MBS stands accused by US intelligence of ordering the murder of Middle East Eye and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi, who was dismembered by Saudi agents in the kingdom's Istanbul consulate in 2018. 

The accusation is vehemently denied by Riyadh, which has also been accused of wide-ranging rights abuses at home.  

Any potential visit to oil-rich Saudi Arabia would likely be aimed at bolstering relations with the country at a time when Biden is trying to find ways to lower gasoline prices in the US.

A White House official said on Friday that the US would not overlook conduct that took place before Biden's presidency, but that "it was also important to reorient - but not rupture - relations with Saudi Arabia," noting the country's role as a strategic partner of the US for eight decades.