x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Obama vows to resolve conflict

Barack Obama squeezed a lot into what was in effect a one-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Barack Obama inspects the remains of a missile during a visit to Sderot in southern Israel yesterday.
Barack Obama inspects the remains of a missile during a visit to Sderot in southern Israel yesterday.

JERUSALEM // He came, he saw, he spoke. Barack Obama, the Democratic presidential hopeful, squeezed an awful lot into what was, in effect, a one-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian Territories. In the process, he created a media brouhaha extraordinary even in a place so used to high-profile visitors.

And in Sderot, the southern Israeli town so often a target for rocket fire from the Gaza Strip, he addressed the media in a wide-ranging press conference, sounding assured even if he offered little evidence that he would bring anything new to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. "We need something meaningful," Mr Obama said about a potential peace agreement between Palestinians and Israelis that he said was in the interests of both sides, "not just a piece of paper".

He vowed that an Obama administration would work from day one on resolving the conflict and would be in it for the long term. He also said any peace agreement could not come at the expense of Israel's security. The closest he got to controversy was to say that Jerusalem "should not be sliced in half", omitting to mention Palestinian aspirations to have their capital there, but not repeating a previous statement that the city should remain the "undivided capital of Israel".

In all, Mr Obama played the role of US presidential contender as expected, but for all the hype surrounding the young senator's visit, some remained distinctly underwhelmed. "Who?" asked Khalid Omar, 24, a labourer working on a construction site about a hundred metres from where Mr Obama had earlier met Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in Ramallah. "I don't care," he said when it was explained who Mr Obama was. "All American presidents support Israel. This one will not be different."

In one respect, however, Mr Obama has already proven himself different at least from his rival, John McCain, whose visit in March did not include a swing by Ramallah to see Palestinian leaders. It was a point not lost on Abdullah Abdullah, a senior Fatah official and a member of the Palestinian Legislative Council. The fact that Mr Obama chose to come to Ramallah was positive, he said, for a number of reasons.

"He saw the Palestinian side as a partner and he wanted to know first hand what we had to say. And, if he gets elected, he will not need time to set priorities, he can start work from day one." Mr Abdullah set little store in Mr Obama's remarks last month in Washington to a meeting of Aipac, a pro-Israel lobbying group, that Jerusalem should remain the undivided capital of Israel. "I think it was courageous of him to correct those remarks on Jerusalem," Mr Abdullah said. "Because that correction will cost him votes."

As it was reflected in his itinerary, however, Mr Obama was more concerned in this visit with impressing upon Israel and Israel's influential supporters back home that he will continue US support for the country than with showing Palestinians he would adopt a more even-handed approach to the conflict. Mr Obama's Muslim background is viewed with some suspicion in Israel where statements showing sympathy for Palestinian suffering and a willingness to talk to Tehran have been long noted while efforts to emphasise the more traditional, unwavering support for Israel have not entirely convinced. In Israel, Mr Obama has nothing like the popularity he has back home.

Thus, his just-short-of-an-hour stop in Ramallah notwithstanding, Mr Obama made sure to make the rounds of all the obligatory stops in Israel, taking in the Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem and Sderot. Yet in spite of his unequivocal comments there in support of Israel's security it will take more to convince some Israelis. "I don't think Obama can be good for Israel or America," said Michael, 46, a uniformed private security guard at a popular restaurant in West Jerusalem. "He has a Muslim background. He can't be very educated."

Michael, whose job it is to body search people and check their bags to deter potential suicide bombers, did not want to give his last name, but was not shy of trumpeting his support for Mr McCain, who was "a true friend of Israel". "If you poll the security establishment," said Yossi Alpher, an Israeli political analyst, "the majority would be for McCain. He's got the security background and he's tough on terrorism. But there's a lot of curiosity about Obama. He's a phenomenon."

Mr Alpher said it was hard to set much store in Mr Obama's comments about the conflict during campaigning, and questioned how much of a difference he could make if elected. "There are four major Middle East issues: Iraq, Iran, Syria/Lebanon and Israel and the Palestinians," Mr Alpher said. "Of these, Iraq and Iran will have to top the priorities for the next American president and any US administration has only so many resources to devote to resolving serious crises, so I am not sure we will see a huge change here."

In Gaza, Ghazi Hamad, a Hamas official, also had little expectation of change. He dismissed Mr Obama's remarks on Jerusalem as "campaigning", but said US support for Israel was institutional rather than political and no one man could do much to change that. "For anyone who wants to win a US election, Israel is key," Mr Hamad said. "I think it will not be easy for Obama to change US policy on Israel. America supports Israel in all aspects and shows little sympathy for Palestinian suffering. I am not optimistic about Obama."