x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Palestinians left out of Obama's swearing-in over 'address mix-up'

Palestinian envoy has been told he was not invited to Barack Obama's inauguration along with hundreds of other foreign dignitaries because he recently changed addresses and emails. Taimur Khan reports from Washington

Barack Obama leaves the White House for the ceremonial swearing in of the president and vice president to a second term in office.
Barack Obama leaves the White House for the ceremonial swearing in of the president and vice president to a second term in office.

WASHINGTON // Scores of foreign dignitaries and diplomats were among the hundreds of high-profile guests seated near Barack Obama on the western steps of the Capitol yesterday as he promised to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution of the United States.

With its pomp and ceremony, a US presidential inauguration is frequently touted here as an inspiring example for less fortunate countries of peaceful and orderly transitions of power.

But one diplomat from a people long denied statehood, in some ways as a direct result of US policy, had no seat at the festivities yesterday.

"You know it's a funny thing," said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian envoy to Washington, about not receiving an invitation to Mr Obama's swearing-in. "Technically we are not on their diplomatic list because we are not recognised as a full-fledged state.

"When we checked last they told us that because we changed addresses and emails," he said, his voice trailing off. "It could be technical, it could be logistical. But I don't feel angry."

Mr Areikat's exclusion from the inaugural ceremony may not have been intentional, but it somehow fits Washington's view of Palestinians and their cause.

Officially the chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the US, Mr Areikat has one of the most thankless jobs of any diplomat in Washington, and his unflagging optimism is an enduring asset as he tries to change perceptions of members of Congress from both parties, many of whom either do not support the Palestinian cause or are ignorant about it.

The White House, for its part, is wary of any involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, even as it engages with the new democracies of the Middle East.

Virtually no Middle East analyst expects Mr Obama to spend much time or political capital in his second term attempting to restart the peace process. More strategically important foreign policy challenges in the Middle East and Asia will absorb the administration's attention.

Today's almost certain victory for prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party in Israel's parliamentary elections signals another crippling blow to any move towards Palestinian statehood.

With the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land continuing apace and no political pressure within rightward moving Israel for concessions, the land-for-peace premise that has been the basis for negotiations is crumbling.

When Mr Areikat first came to Washington just after Mr Obama first entered office in 2009, real change seemed more possible than ever because Mr Obama had made finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a priority and was pushing for a settlement freeze.

But the US president made the mistake of blinking first when Mr Netanyahu refused to accept a freeze as a precondition to talks, Mr Areikat said.

The US administration "should have stood fast and resisted the pressure and continued to demand that Netanyahu cease the settlement activities", he said. "Four years later we see where the settlement enterprise has taken us.

"Of course, we were disappointed by the fact that the administration did not pursue its objectives with resolve, and at the first confrontation they backed down."

But Mr Areikat, in the face all facts to the contrary, believes that Middle East peace is still a core US interest and that Mr Obama's second term holds glimmers of promise.

Only a two-state solution can ensure Israel's long-term security, and if this is one of the pillars of US policy in the region, then the second Obama administration must stay involved, Mr Areikat said.

John Kerry's nomination for secretary of state is promising because he is an advocate of a strong US role in the Middle East and in resolving its conflicts, he added. "But presidential involvement in any effort is crucial."

Mr Areikat also sees opportunity in the US policy of engagement with the new democracies of the Middle East, especially Egypt.

"The US would like to work with these new governments, but keep in mind the leaders can no longer ignore the popular wishes of their own people," he said. "Obama will realise it's a different environment and these governments do not function in a vacuum without being directly influenced by the people."

Mr Areikat was born in Jericho in 1960 and under the influence of his father's political activism, he became involved in the Palestinian struggle himself.

After spending time in Israeli jails he travelled to the US where he completed a master's degree in business administration before returning home in 1992, after a PLO official convinced him that qualified Palestinians were needed to work in the non-violent struggle for statehood.

He began work for the PLO in Jerusalem and served on the negotiating team at the Madrid peace talks. He then worked for 11 years as a PLO negotiator based in Ramallah before being appointed as ambassador to Washington by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Years of hardbitten diplomacy have taught him to take a long view. Being able to adapt to the ebb and flow of political momentum has served him especially well in the hostile atmosphere of Washington.

"The up-and-down mood that we have is part of our job," he said. "It's not consistent, it goes up and down. But the strongest factor that keeps me going is very simple: nobody can stand in the way of history, and no matter the strength of Israel, and its support in this country, eventually we will prevail."

While some may describe his reading of history as sentimental, he finds inspiration even in Mr Obama's inauguration, regardless of the lost invitation.

The notion of Mr Obama giving a second inaugural address in a city partially built by black slaves is "revolutionary" and "a great inspiration", he said. "The fact that it's being held on Martin Luther King Day should be reason for all Americans to understand that dignity, liberty and justice are universal principles."

Bu with the immediate realities of US interests in the Middle East delaying the promise of history for the Palestinians, perhaps the lofty rhetoric about US democracy and values in Mr Obama's second inaugural speech was best left unheard by Mr Areikat.

"I don't know if I'll watch, to be honest with you," he said over the weekend. "It's an important occasion for Americans, but an inauguration is just ceremonial protocol. It doesn't change the facts."

tkhan@thenational.ae

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