x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 19 January 2018

Palestinians doubtful that Obama will hold peace talks on Israel

Critics in Ramallah say the US leader may be focused more on repairing his frosty relationship with the Israeli prime minister than he is on furthering peace in the region. Hugh Naylor reports

A banner in Ramallah, which tells Barack Obama not to bother bringing his smartphone to Ramallah, as he won’t have mobile access to the internet.
A banner in Ramallah, which tells Barack Obama not to bother bringing his smartphone to Ramallah, as he won’t have mobile access to the internet.

RAMALLAH // When Barack Obama arrives in the Middle East on Wednesday, his interest in committing any political capital to exhuming the peace process will be the main question on the minds of Palestinians and their allies.

Touring Israel, Jordan and the West Bank for the first time as US president, Mr Obama will meet the Palestinian Authority (PA) president, Mahmoud Abbas, in Ramallah on Thursday. But even with no re-election worries shadowing Mr Obama's administration, few here expect to hear from him any bold proposals on how to end the Israeli occupation.

The US leader, on his first foreign trip of his second - and last - term in office, has said he is coming to listen to Israelis and Palestinians, something that has not inspired hope.

"He says he's coming here to listen, but I think he has listened to our side for long enough," said a Palestinian official based in Ramallah. "What we need now is action."

More than ever, Washington must try to salvage what remains of its two-decade-old goal of fostering a two-state solution, Palestinians and liberal Israelis say.

Many believe that the prospects for negotiating a Palestinian state existing next to Israel in peace and security have all but vanished because of the continued expansion of settlements, which now house about a half-million Jews on land Palestinians want for their state.

Mr Abbas, who refuses to engage Israel in peace talks without a halt to settlement growth, is expected during his meeting with Mr Obama to bring up the issue of settlers and Palestinians held in Israeli jails.

The Palestinian leader's aides declined to comment publicly on the visit, but privately they said they thought Mr Obama was more concerned with repairing his frosty relationship with the Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, girding America's regional allies against Syria's unrest and allaying Israeli concern over Iran's nuclear programme.

"The expectations are so low, it's very difficult to find anyone who feels excited about this visit," said one official in Ramallah.

Buthayna Al Semeiri, who manages Birzeit University's Media Development Centre, said this sentiment was reflected in the Palestinian media, which had devoted considerably less attention to Mr Obama's visit when compared with reporting on other tours here by previous US presidents.

"When Bush visited, the media was reporting as if there was a possibility of balance in terms of his relations [with Israelis and Palestinians]," Mrs Sameiri said of former president George W Bush's visit here in 2008.

"But with Obama, it's clear whose side he's on."

When he delivered his highly-publicised speech in 2009 at Cairo's Al Azhar University, Mr Obama stirred hopes for a restart in US relations with Arabs and Muslims.

But perceptions of continued pro-Israel bias in US policy have only frustrated Palestinians, spurring Mr Abbas to find alternatives to Washington's support. He defied the Obama administration and Israel last year by winning status as a non-member observer state in the United Nations, and again with continued efforts to reconcile with the Gaza Strip's Hamas rulers.

Some had blunt warnings for Mr Obama should he offer Palestinians and Israelis little more than photo opportunities and mantras about Washington's dedication to the two-state solution.

"Don't come," said Yossi Beilin, one of the Israeli architects of the 1990s Oslo peace accords. "We are all sick and tired of cliches."

Despite his pessimism, Mr Beilin said the US president could propose a number of new solutions, including interim arrangements possibly involving provisional borders that would gradually lead to a permanent peace agreement. A good model would be peace offers previously extended to Israel by Arab countries, which Mr Beilin called "the most important development in our history".

Endorsed by the Arab League, the Arab peace initiatives of 2002 and 2007 offered a normalising of relations with Israel in return for a withdrawal from the occupied Palestinian territories - the West Bank, Gaza Strip and East Jerusalem - and a just solution for Palestinian refugees.

But analysts said other regional crises would likely dominate Mr Obama's visit, notably when he travels to Amman on Friday to meet Jordan's King Abdullah II.

Yossi Alpher, who served as a senior government adviser during the premiership of Ehud Barak, said the meeting would focus on how to shield Jordan against inflows of Syrian fighters, weapons and refugees.

"The first issue will be Syria, Syria, Syria, and all those hundreds of thousands of refugees, weapons moving to Jordan, the blowback on to Jordan," he said.

What Mr Obama may encounter when he comes to Ramallah is widening public resentment among Palestinians with Washington.

Some activists plan to protest against his visit with rallies. Others have erected billboards warning him not to bring along his mobile telephone because Israel denies the PA access to 3G telecommunications.

"President Obama, Don't Bring Your Smartphone to Ramallah. You won't have mobile access to internet. We don't have 3G in Palestine!" the billboards read.