Commentary

Obama's Upcoming Visit to the Holy Land

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

It was announced last week that Barack Obama will visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan at the end of March. Coming on the heels of Israel’s parliamentary elections, many have suggested that the purpose of President Obama’s visit will be to jumpstart the stalled negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. However, Obama’s first-ever presidential visit to Israel has caused some concern among Israeli commentators, who worry about the concessions Obama will demand of a weakened Netanyahu government. Among the rest of the regional media, few are hopeful that Obama’s visit will do much for the peace process, given the widespread disappointment following his 2009 visit to the Middle East.

Immediately following the White House announcement last Tuesday, some in Israel suggested that rather than focus on the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, President Obama should find a solution to the Iranian nuclear issue. Liat Collins, editor of the International Jerusalem Post, goes so far as to suggest that Obama attempting to restart the peace process could cause a rise in violence: “Peace negotiations, perceived by most of the Western world, as the road to paradise have led us to hell as Palestinian ‘martyrs’ commit suicide bombings....Real peace needs to be based on reality, whereas Obama’s grasp of history and Middle Eastern politics are based on dreams, delusions and disinformation....Trying to force a peace solution on Israel and the Palestinians won’t solve the troubles of the world — even a genuine peace agreement between the two won’t do that. Obama’s other problems won’t go away while he makes his presidential trip. Sadly, many of the problems might just get worse.”

A former Israeli consul general in New York, Alon Pinkas, on the other hand, is completely dismissive of the speculation over new peace talks, adding that Mr. Obama knows full well the implausibility of a peace accord at the present time: “The equation is quite simple: Netanyahu cannot and no longer wants to accept the ‘Clinton outline’ from 2000-2001 or the Olmert-Abbas agreements from 2008. He cannot agree to a Palestinian state with ‘temporary borders’ because this would require new maps that do not include certain settlements. The Palestinians cannot accept futile negotiations ‘without preconditions’ and without taking past agreements into consideration. A mock process would cause them to lose the support of the international community. The idea that the process can be reignited with declarations and perhaps a three-way summit in Washington is ludicrous.”

The feeling that the peace process might already be too moribund to be revived is not limited to Israelis. Many in the Arab world believed that the President Obama of 2009 represented a clean break with the past and that he would propel the peace talks at the forefront of his international agenda. Four years later, many are now disillusioned and pessimistic that this time around will turn out any differently.

For example, the Lebanese newspaper The Daily Star, in its editorial, points out that even President Obama’s own team is trying to play down expectations of a breakthrough, thus: “instead of offering a message of hope, Obama’s visit this time around is generating questions. American officials are already playing down the notion that the president will promote a serious peace initiative when he travels to the Holy Land. Instead, he will face a legion of skeptics who heard his inspiring words in 2009, and then watched closely as little to no follow-up ensured....If Obama intends for his trip to have a positive impact, he should have something new up his sleeve. Otherwise, by visiting the Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians and having nothing of consequence to say, he will only significantly increase the high level of political frustration in the Middle East.

Still, some hold out hope that Mr. Obama’s visit to the Middle East will result in meaningful concessions from Israel that might provide the catalyst for the peace talks. But, to be effective, many argue, President Obama must be decisive and free of any political considerations. In one of its editorials, the Khaleej Times staff urges Obama to “put his foot down and apprise Tel Aviv that he is not around for a photo shoot, and that he means business. The trip that will take him to Jordan and the occupied Palestinian territories is an opportunity to wind up an unfinished agenda on the geography of 1967, an aspect that has kept the entire region on tenterhooks....Obama could do well by pronouncing his Middle East strategy before he embarks on his sojourn so that there aren’t misgivings at the end of the day. The Nobel laureate has to vindicate the impression that he stands for brokering peace in all adversity.”

A Gulf Times op-ed piece also believes that it is inevitable that the Palestinian-Israeli peace process will be at the heart of the president’s visit, reporting that some within the Palestinian camp, most notably President Mahmoud Abbas, are hopeful the visit will help move forward the process: “the proximity of Obama’s planned visit to that of Secretary of State John Kerry, who is due in Israel and the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank later this month, leaves little doubt as to an intention to relaunch the peace process, dormant since September 2010.Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he hoped Obama’s visit would mark the ‘beginning of a new U.S. policy that will lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.’ Washington’s caution on the professed goals of Obama’s trip aims at minimizing expectations on the Israeli-Palestinian issue, in which the U.S. president was less involved during his first term.”

Adding to some observers’ optimism is the feeling that, free of reelection considerations, Obama will be bolder in the pursuit of a peace accord between the two parties: “It must be hoped that this is not the further slavish U.S. endorsement of their policies that Zionists believe it to be. Rather that Obama, with the problems of the financial system collapse now off his desk, can focus on the Middle East agenda in the way he promised, but so signally failed to deliver in Cairo four years ago. This time, however, there need be no fine words, no new promises even.  The promises Obama made in 2009 were good enough. Now he needs to deliver with actions not more words.... Israel can no longer go on protesting it wants a peaceful settlement while all the time stealing the land of Palestine and oppressing and pauperizing its people. “

Not everyone in the region shares this optimistic outlook on Obama’s visit. As the Peninsula editorial points out, despite the significance of an official visit from a sitting U.S. president, it would be difficult for anyone to change the status quo: “Obama can use the occasion to lecture the hawkish Israeli leader on the importance of restarting the peace process, but that is unlikely to have much impact going by the policies of Netanyahu....Interestingly, Palestinians too are investing hope in Obama’s planned visit, with President Mahmoud Abbas saying he hoped it would mark the ‘beginning of a new U.S. policy that will lead to the establishment of an independent Palestinian state.’ But that is height of optimism, and is not supported by facts.”

Even though the focus on who would stand to win or lose the most from fresh peace negotiations has been mostly on Abbas and Netanyahu, it must not be forgotten that President Obama also has an extra incentive to succeed where so many have failed. Especially after the unfulfilled promise of his first term and the administration’s escalation of lethal drone strikes, James Zogby argues that President Obama needs a foreign policy coup that signals a clear break with the past: “We've come a long way from President Obama's 2009 speech to the Muslim world in which he declared his willingness to address past failings and his openness to navigate ‘a new beginning’. It would be tragic if his promises were betrayed to see him ultimately defined (as he currently is in some quarters) as the ‘drone president’.  Mr Obama must listen to his critics and make good on his earlier promises to correct the course taken by his predecessor.”


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