Obama Arrives in the Middle East

Edited by Bora Mici

Widespread expectation tinged with skepticism: This seems to be the prevailing mood in Israel and among the Palestinians in anticipation of Barack Obama’s arrival for his debut as U.S. president on both sides of the Holy Land. For different reasons, these opposite sides see this historic visit to the region by the head of the White House — preceded today by his Secretary of State, John Kerry — through the same doubtful eyes.

The profile the president has chosen to adopt reflects this feeling — at least according to declarations and rumors filtered through Washington that indicate Obama does not intend to present himself [in the region] with any new organic peace plan.

A recent poll published by the Jerusalem Post might be a useful indicator of the atmosphere. According to this poll, no more than 36.5 percent of Israeli Jews feel Barack Obama, president of Israel’s most important ally, is a friend of the Jewish state. This figure increased since last year but is still below the 51 percent who consider him neutral, not to mention the 10.5 percent who even see him as hostile.

Similar and opposite signs of distrust can be felt in the West Bank. From Ramallah, via Secretary General of the Palestine National Initiative Mustafa Barghouti, the Palestinian Liberation Organization has warned the special guest that “the time of passivity is over,” urging Obama to send “a clear and decisive signal to Israel and the international community.” Otherwise, he risks “the failure of the two-state solution,” he added.

Barghouti has recognized the importance of the dual phase envisioned by Obama for the West Bank, where the man in the White House will meet the president of the Palestinian National Authority, Abu Mazen (Mahmud Abbas), the day after tomorrow. “This [meeting] is a first for a U.S. president since the recognition of the Palestinian state by the U.N. General Assembly,” noted Barghouti. But the representative of the PLO also denounced that “20 years since the Oslo Accords, the situation of the Palestinian people has worsened,” and that “Israel has augmented the politics of apartheid in the occupied territories.”

Barghouti has expressed strong reserves about U.S. hopes to resume negotiations following the formation of a new right-wing government in Israel, a government in which both Naftali Bennett and Yair Lapid (the new allies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party) do not take after their declarations, “partners for peace,” and represent in the eyes of the Palestinians “only the interests of the settler movement.” Barghouti concluded that “Obama has to therefore decide if he is one of the many U.S. presidents who was merely a follower or the one who will change the course of history in the Middle East.”

On the part of Palestinian activists, judgment seems even more drastic. Linah Alsaafin, a freelance journalist for Al Jazeera and Electronic Intifada, has said to the Italian press agency ANSA: “We should not expect anything from the visit. From the Oslo Accords to today, the number of Israeli settlers has risen from 200,000 to 500,000, and the parameters imposed by Road Map were not even minimally indulged.”

Abir Kopty, a Nazareth Christian and a spokesperson for the Palestinian Popular Resistance Committee, once observed: “Even if there are few expectations for Obama’s visit, whether from Palestinians or Israelis, in the end something will happen. But, to be clear, it will obviously not be something positive for the Palestinians.” Her impression is that Obama “wants to play the surprise card” but only on a limited number of issues.

Yasmine Saleh, founder of Palestinians for Dignity, cut to the chase: “I believe that Obama is coming here primarily to please Israel and the Jewish lobby. I don’t think he will say anything memorable. We are already organizing a protest with a clear message for him: Obama, you can stay home.”

*Editor’s Note: The quotes in this article, accurately translated, could not be verified.

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