Little hope for peace as Obama visits Middle East
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The White House has lowered expectations for re-starting negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians as Barack Obama begins his first tour of the Middle East as US president, but time for peace could be running out.
Barack Obama begins on Wednesday his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territory of the West Bank as US president, as part of a Middle East tour that will also include a stop in Jordan, but the White House has lowered expectations over rekindling peace talks before the president’s trip.
While some observers hope a highly symbolic visit can nudge negotiations a tiny step forward, others see no way for the American president to break two years of deadlock, and warn of dangerous consequences for the stability of the region.
"Peace must come to the Holy Land. We will never lose sight of an Israel at peace with its neighbours," Obama said, as he began his first visit to the Jewish state as president. "Our alliance is eternal. It is for ever."
“I think we are witnessing an American and collective resignation,” said Karim Bitar, a Middle East expert with France’s Institute for International and Strategic Relations. “Obama will be forced to pay lip-service to the peace issue, but America is not prepared to put more pressure on Israel to move it to the negotiating table.”
In an interview with FRANCE 24 last week, Ofer Bronchtein, once an advisor to Israeli premiere Yithzak Rabin and co-founder of the International Forum for Peace, said restarting peace talks was “absolutely impossible” with the current Israeli government, which includes the leader of the pro-settlement Jewish Home party, Naftali Bennett.
“Bennett is against the creation of a Palestinian state, and he doesn’t believe in a future peace agreement,” Brochtein said.
Warren Clark, executive director for the Washington-based Churches for Middle East Peace (CMEP), said that despite the low expectations for Obama’s visit, it would nevertheless have an impact on the situation.
“Hopefully it will lead to something positive. If it does, the next step will be for [Secretary of State John] Kerry to consult with the two parties and establish the basis for peace efforts,” Clark, a former US Ambassador to Gabon and a career diplomat, told FRANCE 24.
Obama’s schedule includes a bilateral meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and one with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, both followed by press conferences.
But the Obama administration has chosen to underscore the president’s planned speech to hundreds of Israeli university students at the Jerusalem Convention Centre on Thursday and visits to Israeli and Palestinian cultural centres.
Obama not trusted
The Obama charm offensive comes after years of strained ties between his administration and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government, and growing mistrust of the American president among Palestinians.
Posters of interlocked US and Israeli flags have adorned the streets of Jerusalem ahead of Obama’s visit, in a well-orchestrated effort to camouflage soured relations between Obama and Netanyahu over the settlement issue.
“Israelis don’t trust Obama, not 100 percent,” said Leila Auda, FRANCE 24’s correspondent in Jerusalem. “They won’t forget that he did not visit Israel during his first term, and they are very aware of the ‘cold war’ between Obama and Netanyahu.”
Palestinian hopes that Obama would pressure Israel to make concessions have also diminished over the past four years. In a landmark speech in Cairo in June 2009, Obama said “it is time for the settlements to stop,” adding their construction undermined hopes for peace.
Posters of the president were also hung in the Palestinian city of Ramallah last week, but quickly defaced by residents, FRANCE 24’s Auda noted.
She said a large banner in Ramallah warning Obama “Don’t bother to bring your mobile phone”, because Ramallah lacked a 3G mobile network, spoke of Palestinians feelings that the US and other world powers had done nothing to improve their lives.
“Palestinians are not encouraged by reports that Obama is coming to ‘listen to them’,” Auda said. “They say American presidents have been listening to them since the Oslo Accords, but nothing has changed, there is nothing new to say.”
Moving toward third Intifada
CMEP’s Warren Clark said that while the timing may not completely “ripe” for peace talks, it may be better than a year ago.
“The Israeli elections were surprising. Naftali Bennett’s settlers' party did not get many seats in parliament as predicted, which shows the Israeli public is not enthusiastic about extremist positions,” he told FRANCE 24.
Warren also said that the November vote that granted Palestine non-member observer status at the United Nations, and breakdown of the ballot, may signal international public opinion is getting impatient over the stalled peace process.
However, no one is as impatient as the Palestinians.
Some observers said that the failure to restart talks would likely spell doom for Abbas, and thus for the current fragile truce between the two sides.
According to Auda, it is largely thanks to Abbas that Palestinians in the West Bank have renounced terrorist attacks and armed struggle, in exchange for the promise of a homeland and prosperity. But a growing number of Palestinians are confronting extreme poverty.
“Many are just waiting for the eruption of the third Intifada,” said the French analyst Bitar in reference to Palestinian’s term for a popular uprising.
“The Palestinian Authority is weak, and the economic and political status quo is untenable,” Bitar added. “It is clear that the period following the Oslo Accords is over, and this is the beginning of a new phase.”