x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

'Preparing to put pressure on'

Palestinians are pleased with support for statehood while an Israeli observer sees Obama's speech as a signal to get tough on settlements.

Palestinian boys in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip follow yesterday's speech in Cairo by the US president Barack Obama.
Palestinian boys in Rafah in the southern Gaza Strip follow yesterday's speech in Cairo by the US president Barack Obama.

TEL AVIV // While Palestinians expressed cautious optimism yesterday towards the reaffirmed commitment of Barack Obama to Palestinian statehood and his rejection of Jewish settlement expansion, Israel's new Right-wing government reacted coolly to the US president's pledge. Mr Obama, in his historic speech to the Muslim world in Cairo, promised to pursue the "legitimate" Palestinian aspiration to an independent state and insisted that its creation was the "the only resolution" to the long-standing conflict with Israel. He said continued Jewish settlements in the occupied West Bank, territory Palestinians want for their future state, had no legitimacy.

Mr Obama's statements on the Israeli-Palestinian dispute appeared to draw the most attention in his speech because they signified what increasingly appears to be a shift in the Middle East policy of the US - widely viewed as pro-Israel - and addressed a highly emotional issue for many Muslims. "He is preparing the ground to put pressure on Israel and be serious about the settlements," said Neve Gordon, a political-science professor at Israel's Ben-Gurion University. He added: "If Obama wants to maintain credibility among Muslims, he will have to put his money where his mouth is. He will have to show that he is willing to pressure Israel."

Palestinians welcomed Mr Obama's words and said they were waiting to see whether they would have an impact on the ground. Nabil Abu Rdainah, a spokesman for Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the western-backed Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, was quoted by news agencies as saying that the speech was a "good start" towards a new US policy. He added that it was "a clear message to Israel that a just peace is built on the foundations of a Palestinian state with Jerusalem as its capital."

Officials of Hamas, a Palestinian Islamist group that controls the Gaza Strip and rivals Mr Abbas's Fatah movement, suggested the speech was encouraging but insufficient. Fawzi Barhoum, a spokesman of Hamas, against which Israel launched an onslaught in December and January, said: "There is a change between the speech of President Obama and previous speeches made by George Bush." However, he added, "the statements ? did not include a mechanism that can translate his wishes and views into actions".

The Israeli government, in a statement, pointedly ignored Mr Obama calling for it to pursue the two-state solution and stop building in the West Bank. It said: "We hope that the American effort heralds the start of a new period and the end of the conflict ? Israel will make every effort to expand the circle of peace while protecting its interests, especially its national security." The Israeli response to the Cairo address was a further indication of a widening rift between Israel and its staunchest ally on reaching a two-state accord. Benjamin Netanyahu, who in late March became Israeli premier for the second time, is leading a government with a majority of members opposed to Palestinian statehood and strongly supporting the continuation of Jewish settlement construction. The Israeli leader has insisted that his government will permit building within existing settlements to accommodate what he vaguely labels "natural growth".

Some Israeli analysts yesterday said Mr Netanyahu may have little choice but to succumb to US pressure on the settlement issue. Ayala Hasson, a politically well-connected commentator for Israel's state-owned Channel 1 TV, said: "I expect that we will see a change of policy. [Israel] will have to find a solution for the freezing of settlements. Netanyahu understands that he needs to take part in this process, otherwise Israel will appear as if it is refusing peace."

But for the Israeli leader, it will not be easy to convince his hawkish government - or the Right-wing voters that brought it to power ? that settlement expansion needs to be stopped. Daniel Hershkowitz, Israel's science and technology minister and the head of a small pro-settler party in Mr Netanyahu's coalition, said: "The Israeli government is not some overlapping excess of the US administration. The relationship between Washington and Jerusalem is based on friendship and not on surrender.

"We have to draw the line when it comes to the natural growth of settlements." Furthermore, in another sign of Israel's rightward shift, a survey released yesterday by Israel Radio showed that 56 per cent of Jewish citizens opposed the US call for curtailing West Bank construction, while 30 per cent endorsed the demand. Mr Obama's approach is also spurring demonstrations by extremist settlers. On Wednesday, about 200 of them protested in front of the US consulate in Jerusalem, calling out "Obama - No You Can't!" and waving signs such as "Obama, You Were Elected President of US, Not Israel!"

vbekker@thenational.ae