Commentary

Obama's Visit to Israel and Palestine - Part I

Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus

Barack Obama has embarked on his first presidential trip to Israel and Palestine. The White House has tried to lower the expectations of the president’s visit with regards to a breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks. Judging from the media reaction to the visit, the low expectations are shared by all parties involved. In Israel, Obama’s visit is viewed with apathy, although there are some suspicions about the president’s true intentions. The Palestinians, meanwhile, have expressed disappointment with the Obama administration’s attempts to thwart their efforts at achieving official recognition at the United Nations.

The indifference displayed by the broader Israeli public regarding President Obama’s visit is puzzling to Yedioth Ahronoth’s Tamar Hermann, especially considering, as Hermann notes: “the fact that many in Israel and abroad recommended such a visit repeatedly....So it is quite surprising that when the visit is actually happening, the hosts seem unenthusiastic....As shown by surveys in the past, the president is not perceived as an ‘Israel lover.’... the figures show that — like in the past — Obama is perceived as lacking any special attitude toward Israel and having a tendency to favor the Palestinian rival, and as someone who will not go out of his way to defend Israel either.”

President Obama’s decision to forego the opportunity of speaking to the Knesset (Israel’s parliament) in favor of addressing Israeli students at a convention center in Jerusalem has also raised some eyebrows. But in an op-ed for the business daily, Globes, Ran Dagoni suggests the president will find it difficult to rally them around his cause: “The U.S. administration now hopes to reach the Israeli government from below, through the people....The critics say that this approach relies on idealism and naiveté, but Obama believes in the magic of speeches, especially his own....He will find it difficult to pull a large part of the audience from its sense of relative physical security. Iron Dome and the separation fence have surrounded Israel in a isolating cotton wool and anesthetized the feeling of an existential threat. The urge to reach a settlement with the Palestinians has shriveled.”

Many Israeli commentators have also approached the president’s visit with suspicion about his true motives and agenda. For example, Isi Leibler is worried that Obama’s visit to Israel comes at a low point of political influence of American Jewry and wonders in an op-ed for the Jerusalem Post what Obama will propose “in relation to Iran? Does he intend to pressure Israel again to make further unilateral concessions to the Palestinians on the basis of a quid pro quo in relation to Iran? ... In addition, it should be clear that if Obama fails to employ U.S. pressure on the Europeans to prevent sanctions being imposed against Israel or abstains from vetoing anti-Israeli UN Security Council resolutions, he would be, indirectly, abandoning the Jewish state to the wolves.”

Israelis have also taken advantage of Obama’s visit to agitate for the release of convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard. The conservative website Arutz Sheva reported that upon his arrival, President Obama “was greeted by a row of top Israeli officials. One of them, Housing Minister Uri Ariel, used his few seconds face-to-face with the U.S. President to say, ‘Please free Pollard.’ Minister of Culture and Sport Limor Livnat (Likud) similarly asked Obama ‘not to forget our brother Jonathan Pollard.’...Many Israelis have urged Obama to free Pollard, who has served more than 28 years in prison for sharing classified information with Israel. More than 200,000 people have signed a petition calling for Pollard’s release, and around 2,000 held a demonstration in Jerusalem on Tuesday evening calling on Obama to free him.”

Further, in an op-ed for the Yedioth Ahronoth, Hagai Segal describes what President Obama is likely to see on his way to Ramallah, while pointing out the small size of the territory that Israelis call their home: “What will U.S. President Obama see as he makes his way along Route 60 from Jerusalem to the Muqata in Ramallah? Many things one cannot see from the Oval Office. He will not see any checkpoints along the way. There are no checkpoints along Route 60, the main highway in the West Bank. Israeli and Palestinian vehicles travel on this road regularly. All the descriptions of an ‘apartheid road’ are nothing more than leftist fairytales....Along the beautiful segment of Route 60, between the Machmesh passage and the Assaf Junction, the president will be able to see Jordan, giving him an indication of how small this country is. There is barely enough room for one country here, let alone two.”

Of course, there are also those who argue that Obama should refrain from visiting Ramallah and the Palestinians altogether: “It will be hypocritical and counter-productive for President Obama, the leader of the free world and the world’s greatest democracy,” asserts Shoula Romana Horing, “to visit the Palestinian Authority territories and honor the Palestinian leadership under Mahmoud Abbas, which has been corrupt, undemocratic, and repressive of its own people....If Obama’s main purpose in visiting Israel is to re-establish the trust of the Israeli people in him in order to convince them to give up the West Bank and part of Jerusalem, a visit to Ramallah to appease the authoritarian Abbas will be counterproductive.”

It is unlikely that President Obama will listen to that advice. But it is unlikely that he will receive a much warmer welcome in Palestine than he received in Israel. As in Israel, the President Obama will have to face a population and political class that have become jaded by the perennial failures to find a way forward. Moreover, after Obama’s historic Cairo address, many Palestinians have become disappointed with what they consider Obama’s retrenchment on a host of positions in the face of Israeli opposition.

Writing that the president’s visit will only receive a lukewarm reception among the Palestinians, MIFTAH’s Joharah Baker is also quick to point out that there is a possibility that Obama will face protests during his visit there: “Word has it that youth groups are planning to greet him with protests....If anything, Palestinians are peeved that Obama is finally visiting Palestine for the first time since he took office and is basically bringing nothing with him. At least for the Palestinians. For Israel, Obama has made it abundantly clear that his country will put Israel’s security front and center in any conversation he may have on the conflict....Perhaps if he had made the same trip when he was first elected and when his values were still intact regarding Palestine, his reception would have been a bit different.”

For others, like Al Qassam’s Khalid Amayreh, Obama’s visit will do nothing to ameliorate the fate of the Palestinians, since: “a thorough and honest examination of the facts pertaining to the Palestinian question shows that the chances of reaching a real breakthrough that would lead to real peace in the region are nearly zero.... there is a very little chance that the extreme right-wing leadership in Israel, including the soon-to-be formed coalition government, would agree to pay the price for peace, given the ideological and political extremism permeating through the Israeli Jewish society....Thanks to the total impunity meted out to Israel by the American-led international community, Israel has been able to kill the two-state solution.”

Finally, there are those who still believe that the promise of a more peaceful future between the Palestinians and the Israelis is possible. Gershon Baskin, co-chairman of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information and a longtime interlocutor between the Israelis and the Palestinians, offers ten pieces of advice to President Obama reminding him of the central role that the United States plays in the process: “The parties have to want it more than you, this is true, but you have to help the parties to understand that resolving the conflict is possible....If there is real progress being made in the negotiations you won’t have to ask for confidence-building measures; the parties will undertake them themselves because they will understand doing so serves the interests of concluding a better agreement....There is a great urgency, even if they don’t admit it. There are partners for peace among the people on both sides — a majority on both sides. Every issue in conflict can be resolved. We need you to do it.”


Click here to read previous installments of Middle East In Focus

Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.