x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Palestinians hoping for 'positive' input from Obama

The historic election of Barack Obama leaves Palestinians optimistic that this will be the turning point in the region.

Firaz Yassin, left, manager of the Diwan coffee shop, says the US election is of little interest to people in Ramallah.
Firaz Yassin, left, manager of the Diwan coffee shop, says the US election is of little interest to people in Ramallah.

RAMALLAH // Customers at the Diwan coffee shop in the centre of Ramallah were distinctly underwhelmed by the historic election of Barack Obama. America may have elected its first African-American president, but here pop videos played non-stop on the two television screens, while the talk was more focused on the upcoming Champions League football fixtures than global politics. "It really makes no difference to us," said Hussem Abu Aisheh, 37, a social worker from Nablus who had come to Ramallah to visit friends. "The pro-Israel lobby in the US is too strong and all US presidents, whatever their party, have shown they support Israel." Mr Abu Aisheh said he had not followed the election on TV but had instead watched Tuesday's football games. "I am more concerned with what happens to Real Madrid," said the social worker, who is also studying for an MA in political science at Nablus's Al Najjah University. "I don't expect any change for us with this election." Mr Abu Aisheh's apathy was common among the coffee shop's clientele, according to manager Firaz Yassin. Diwan is located near several ministries and caters to mostly civil servants, but Mr Yassin said he had shown the football on Tuesday night since no one was interested in following the elections. "No one has been talking about it much," said the 35-year-old, who works in the ministry of transport when he is not looking after the coffee shop. "You might hear a passing remark, but really, people don't see [the election] as important for them." Palestinian officials, however, were more forthcoming. "We are hopeful that [Barack Obama's] presidency will be positive for the peace process and positive for finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict," said Rafiq Husseini, the chief of staff of the office of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. Mr Husseini said Mr Abbas had been impressed by Mr Obama when the two met this year and that the latter had shown that he "understood the issues in depth". "He has promised his people change and that includes that America will deal with global issues in a different manner and with an approach based on justice and co-operation. If that is the case, it will bode well for the Palestinians and the region as a whole." Guarded optimism was the word from Gaza. "This is a historic day," said Ahmed Yousef, a senior Hamas official. "All over the world, people were watching and waiting for the announcement that Obama had won. [US President George W] Bush had put the whole world at risk with his 'war on terror'. Everyone wanted change." However, Mr Yousef cautioned against too much hope. "For us as Muslims and Palestinians, it's difficult to judge Obama. We hope that this election will be a turning point when it comes to the Palestinian question and that the new administration will be serious about Palestinians having their own independent state and will not just back Israeli aggression. We will see in the next six months." Whatever politicians say, it is hard to escape the feeling that among Palestinians generally the loss of faith in US mediation and motives is total. Mr Abu Aisheh was not impressed with Mr Obama's African background, saying it was likely it would be negative for Palestinians since, "he will have to prove his support for Israel even more". Political analysts, too, were guarded in their judgment, with the upcoming Israeli elections being seen as much more important. "No matter who is in the White House, if [right wing Israeli leader Benjamin] Netanyahu is in power here, Israel will reject any US pressure [towards peace]," said Walid Salem, a political analyst. "I don't think the Americans are able to apply significant pressure on Israel, and even if Obama tries, the structures of power in the US will stand in his way." Mr Salem nevertheless said he saw Mr Obama as a "visionary" and that he was hopeful that "eventually" this would have a positive effect on the Palestinian issue. "I hear him use the kind of language that will raise American awareness of global issues. It won't have an immediate impact on Palestinians but it will on international relations in general and in the end this will help us." The caution among analysts and officials and cynicism among ordinary people is perhaps not surprising in a place where Tuesday's Israeli military incursion into Gaza, that ultimately resulted in the deaths of six Gazans, was widely seen as having taken place under the cover of the US elections when the world's attention was focused elsewhere. It is the reaction to such incidents that will help shape Palestinian judgment on an Obama administration once it is sworn in. Until then, most will simply agree with Mr Yassin. "Someone leaves, another comes. For us there is no difference." okarmi@thenational.ae