President Barack Obama arrived in the West Bank today to see firsthand if Palestinian leaders still angry over his rejection of their United Nations statehood bid can be persuaded to renew peace talks with Israel.
Obama’s itinerary reflects the difficulty of that task, after a stalemate of more than two years. He touched down in Ramallah this morning to meet with Palestinian officials just after viewing the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem -- artifacts Palestinians regard as stolen from occupied territory.
“Balancing the messages to the Israeli and Palestinian publics will be a major challenge,” said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution in Washington.
The president’s declared focus during his trip is on strengthening the U.S. alliance with Israel. Palestinian officials in Ramallah, whose streets are plastered with anti- Obama posters, say their expectations from the trip are modest.
“Of course we will welcome him in every possible way and we will try to explain our problems to him so that he can think more about them when he gets home and develop some new ideas,” Nabil Shaath, an adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and veteran negotiator, said in a telephone interview.
At a news conference at the official residence of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, Obama said his administration hasn’t always handled peacemaking well.
“I’m absolutely sure that there are a host of things that I could have done that would have been more deft and would have created better optics, but ultimately this is a really hard problem,” he said. “It’s been lingering for over six decades, and the parties involved have profound interests that you can’t spin, you can’t smooth over.”
Talks stalled over the Palestinians’ demand that Israel freeze all settlement construction in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, Israeli-occupied territories they see as the core of a future state that would also include the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. Israel says there must be no conditions to talks.
Frustrated by the impasse, the Palestinians asked the UN to recognize a de facto Palestinian state within the borders they seek. They failed to muster Security Council support, but last year the General Assembly accorded them the lesser status of non-member observer state. The U.S. and Israel opposed both moves, saying statehood must come through talks.
Obama won’t visit Gaza, which is ruled by a militant group, Hamas, that is classified by the U.S., Israel and the European Union as a terrorist group. A Hamas spokesman, Ahmed Bahar, predicted that the Obama trip “will be disastrous for the Palestinian people.”
Four rockets were fired from the Gaza Strip at Israel this morning. One hit a courtyard in the southern town of Sderot, causing damage but no injuries, police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said by telephone. The Palestinian Authority has denounced violence.
The prime minister of the Hamas government in Gaza, Ismail Haniyeh, said the visit wouldn’t end the stalemate.
“We don’t expect any breakthrough from Obama’s visit that changes the political equation on the ground,” he said in a text message sent to reporters’ cellular phones on Thursday. “We don’t see the American policy as helping to end the Israeli occupation, but rather, as promoting settlement and capitulation under the slogan of peace.”
Obama’s visit to Ramallah, administration officials say, comes at an important time for Obama to reinforce U.S. support for the Palestinian Authority. Many Palestinians have lost faith in Abbas, frustrated that the diplomacy he champions hasn’t brought them a state.
While in Ramallah, Obama and Abbas will hold talks, have a working lunch and take questions from reporters. He will visit a U.S.-funded youth center, but not the tomb of Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, as is customary for visiting dignitaries. Many Palestinians were offended by Obama’s kind words for Israel yesterday and the only brief detour to Ramallah. Immediately upon landing in Israel yesterday, the president declared that the U.S. stands beside the Jewish state because it “makes the world a better place.”
“He didn’t speak about ending the occupation or ending settlements, and that’s a good indication of how he views Palestinians, said Ahmad Rafiq Awad, a Palestinian specialist in Israeli affairs at Al Quds University in east Jerusalem. ‘‘He’s biased in a way we’ve never seen before.”
As is the case during meetings with Israelis, Obama is going with a message of patience. He’ll tell them that provocative unilateral actions could be self-defeating and will emphasize to Palestinians that through resuming negotiations and abandoning violence, they will eventually get a Palestinian state, said Haim Malka, deputy director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.
“The president will try to convince Palestinians that he has not forgotten them and that he is still committed to helping them secure an independent Palestinian state,” Malka said.
While the U.S. holds the leverage to effect change in the Middle East, there is no sign that Obama is ready to use that, said Marwan Muasher, a vice president at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington and Jordan’s first ambassador to Israel.
To end the conflict, “it’s going to require very active diplomacy on the part of the president, which I and most others, I think, don’t see.”
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