x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

In the Middle East, Obama will speak to people directly

President Obama's trip to the Middle East is designed to begin a process to engage the Israeli and Palestinian people in an effort to win new support for peacemaking efforts that will follow.

In this space on February 24, I wrote that the main emphasis of President Barack Obama's upcoming visit to the Middle East would not be the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Taking my cues from the recently-completed trip by John Kerry, the US secretary of state, and from the way the White House had been "lowballing" expectations about progress in restarting Israeli-Palestinian talks, I assumed that the president would focus his visit largely on the challenge posed by Iran's nuclear programme and on the worsening Syrian conflict.

However, new information makes it clear that my assumption was wrong. Last week, I was among a group of Arab-American leaders who had an hour-long meeting with President Obama and his senior advisers, to discuss his coming visits to Israel, Palestine, and Jordan.

Later a White House statement said, in part, that Mr Obama sees the voyage as "an opportunity for him to demonstrate the United States's commitment to the Palestinian people - in the West Bank and Gaza - and to partnering with the Palestinian Authority as it continues building institutions that will be necessary to build a truly independent Palestinian state".

Our discussions with the president were particularly striking for his interest in our ideas about how to make the visit as productive and meaningful as possible.

We urged the president to reach out, in several directions: directly to the Palestinian people; to the business community struggling to create jobs; to young people in need of hope; to Christians concerned about their future in the Holy Land; to women seeking empowerment and to those who are committed to challenging the occupation without violence.

Just as Mr Obama intends to speak directly to the Israeli people when he is in Israel, we emphasised, he should also address ordinary Palestinians. In this context, we found promising the post-meeting statement and the final trip schedule to be encouraging.

As administration officials have made clear on several occasions, the president will not use this visit to offer a plan to restart negotiations immediately. Conditions simply do not exist for a peacemaking initiative to bear fruit. The newly constituted Israeli government leans too far to the right. The Palestinian house is also in disarray, with reconciliation talks stalled.

Given this, the best the president can do, in the short term, is attempt to reassert, directly to both peoples, his commitment to them and to a peaceful future, in an effort to change the discourse in both societies away from the cynicism and hardline views that have stalled progress towards peace.

Seen in this light, almost every aspect of the president's visit contains a message to the Israeli and Palestinian peoples. He will want to win their confidence, demonstrating that he understands their histories and current realities. He will then note the dangers inherent in the current trajectory of regional developments, and set out the challenges and opportunities that making peace will entail.

He will engage the leadership of both communities, but will go beyond the leaders to speak directly to young Israelis and Palestinians.

No doubt, both Iran and the Arab Spring will be topics of conversation in Israel and Jordan. While in Jordan, the president will support the changes underway and will encourage the king to continue on the path of reform. He will also focus on the hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees coming into Jordan, testing that country's resources and political order.

Another aspect of the Syrian war and the Middle East's tumultuous last decade is the increased vulnerability of the region's Christians. In a surprise move, the White House added a stopover in Bethlehem between Mr Obama's visits to Israel and Jordan. Going to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem will allow him to focus attention on the 2,000 years of Christian presence in the Holy Land and in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Iraq.

In Bethlehem, the president's team will also see first-hand the effect of the occupation on Palestinian daily life. Most evident will be the nine-metre-high wall that snakes around the little city, cutting it off from Jerusalem.

Then there is the Israeli settlement of Har Homa. The Israelis refer to this development as a "neighbourhood" of Jerusalem, but it is built largely on land seized from Bethlehem.

In the late 1990s Bill Clinton, then president, strongly objected to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's plans to build Har Homa on the green hill of Jabal Abul Ghnaim. But Mr Netanyahu defied the US and today that green space is gone, replaced by a settlement of 15,000 Israelis, with plans for expansion. This settlement, like the wall, separates Bethlehem from Jerusalem.

This will be the president's first trip of his second term, and while he will not table a peace plan, every indication is that he remains committed to an Israeli-Palestinian peace. This trip is designed to begin a process to engage the Israeli and Palestinian peoples (and Jewish and Arab Americans) in an effort to win new support for peacemaking efforts that will follow.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa