Few Palestinians will doubt Barack Obama’s commitment to a negotiated two-state settlement of their conflict with Israel following his brief visit to Ramallah, the seat of the Palestinian Authority. What will worry them, though, are the terms.
In contrast to his first-term position, the American president made no call for an Israeli settlement freeze, and did not state, as he had previously, that the pre-June 1967 armistice line would serve as the basis for the frontiers of a Palestinian state. Speaking at a joint press conference with the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, Mr Obama declared settlement construction unconstructive for a two-state settlement, but said that his visit had given him “a better understanding” of the [internal] “constraints” that militated against Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, halting the expansion of Jewish housing on occupied land
Taking a few hours out of his three-day tour of Israel, Mr Obama travelled 11 kilometres north to Ramallah by helicopter, leapfrogging Israel’s matrix of walls, checkpoints and settlements that obstruct Palestinian movement around the city. American diplomats in Jerusalem seeking a bit more parity for the Palestinians with Israel said they had to scramble for all the minutes they could get. Some hoped for a visit to Ramallah’s modernist museum for Mahmoud Darwish, Palestine’s premier modern poet, which they hoped would match his earlier visit to the Israel Museum in West Jerusalem. But they say that they were overruled by American security officials. In contrast to the celebratory mood in Israel during the visit, Palestinians inside and outside the conference hall were glum.
Mr Obama called for an immediate resumption of negotiations, reiterating Israel’s terms that there be no terms for talking. “If the expectation is we can only have direct negotiations when everything is settled ahead of time,” said Mr Obama, “then there’s no point in the negotiations.”
The parameters appeared in question as well. Whereas previous American presidents had defined five core issues for a two-state settlement, Mr Obama spoke only of two: security arrangements and borders. He sought to kick the issue of settlements into touch, by saying that a final-status settlement demarcating the borders would resolve which settlements survived under Israeli rule. Dealing with it ahead of an agreement was, he suggested, putting “the cart before the horse.” He made no mention either of Jerusalem, which both Israel and Palestine claim as their capital, or of Palestinian refugees whom Israel refuses to allow home. Standing alongside Mr Abbas, Mr Obama said, “People want to have 100% of what they want, or 95% of what they want, without making the necessary compromises.”
Offering more music for Mr Netanyahu’s ears, he described Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people, a position which Palestinians have long decried for prejudicing both the rights of Israel’s indigenous Arabs, who make up 20% of the country’s population, and precluding what they claim is the right of Palestinian refugees to return. Mr Obama further condemned Hamas, the Islamist movement ruling Gaza, for oppressive rule and the two rockets fired from Gaza during his visit, making no mention of the far more lethal fire Israel has aimed at Gaza since the two sides accepted a nominal ceasefire following a heavy Israeli bombardment in November.
By moving in Mr Netanyahu’s direction, Mr Obama might hope to induce Mr Netanyahu to woo Israel into a process which could result in a meaningful Israeli withdrawal. But Palestinians are unlikely to share the same confidence. In their eyes Israel has previously used the cover of a peace process to consolidate its hold on the occupied territories with hundreds of thousands of settlers, rather than weaken it. The more they compromise, they say, the higher Israel keeps the bar. Symptomatic of scepticism shared widely by Palestinian as well as international officials in Ramallah, a European diplomat dismissed Mr Obama’s visit as American whitewash for Israel.