Obama on Palestine: Diminishing returns
For the Palestinians the contrast between President Barack Obama’s two visits to the Middle East, in the span of four years, is striking. After winning an historic presidential election, President Obama came to the region, in June 2009, bearing a reconciliatory message to the Arab and Muslim worlds and promising a new beginning. In his speech at Cairo University America’s first black president described Palestinian statelessness as “intolerable.” Following meetings with regional leaders the US president told Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu that the creation of a Palestinian state under the two-state solution was a matter of priority and that Jewish settlement activity must be frozen.
In his September 2009 speech before the UN General Assembly President Obama again visited the subject of peace between Israel and the Palestinians. “We continue to emphasize that America does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements,” he said. He added that “the time has come to re-launch negotiations without preconditions that address the permanent status issues: security for Israelis and Palestinians, borders, refugees, and Jerusalem. And the goal is clear: Two states living side by side in peace and security — a Jewish state of Israel, with true security for all Israelis; and a viable, independent Palestinian state with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967, and realizes the potential of the Palestinian people.”
But a sensational showdown between Obama and Netanyahu over settlements and negotiations ended in defeat for the American leader. US efforts to kick-start Israeli-Palestinian negotiations began to wane. In the end Obama’s promises to the Palestinians were forgotten as the winds of change blew over this region.
Today the Middle East is starkly different from the one that President Obama visited in 2009. The Arab Spring has dethroned the leaders of Tunis, Libya, Egypt and Yemen. A bloody war has been raging in Syria for the last two years, posing an unprecedented challenge for the Arab political order, for countries in the region and for the international community. Among the prominent casualties of the Arab Spring phenomenon was the Palestinian issue.
In his second visit to the region last week President Obama manifested this geopolitical change. This time, and in contrast to his Cairo and UN speeches, he made no reference to Jerusalem, refugees, pre-1967 war borders and did not call for an Israeli settlement freeze. On the latter issue he declared settlement construction unconstructive for a two-state settlement.
He called for a “viable” Palestinian state but did not mention the word “contiguous.” For the Palestinians his remarks were disappointing, to say the least. This time the American leader repeated and adopted the Israeli official position. He did not talk to ordinary Palestinians nor did he raise hopes of a quick end to occupation.
His visit to Israel was the main objective of the regional tour. Palestine was a side issue. Even when he spoke before thousands of Israeli students calling on them to pressure their leaders and to try to see the world as Palestinians do, his words were mere rhetoric. It appeared that President Obama was in Israel to change his image, reconcile with Netanyahu, who backed his Republican opponent in the last presidential elections, and adopt Israel’s security agenda on Syria and Iran. His short detour to Ramallah, by helicopter to avoid going through Israeli checkpoints, the barrier wall and belt of settlements encircling East Jerusalem, was more of a symbolic gesture than an actual attempt to reach out to the Palestinians.
The change in US position on the Palestinian issue will have dire effects on the future of peace talks and their outcome. President Obama had sided with Israel and agreed to change the parameters that had set the agenda for negotiations for over two decades. In retrospect President Obama had done more damage to the Palestinian cause and search for a just peace than his predecessor, George W. Bush!
The only notable breakthrough during his visit was the unexpected apology offered by Netanyahu to Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan over the 2010 Israeli raid on a peace flotilla heading for Gaza in which nine Turkish aid volunteers were gunned down. This development will be seen by Arabs, and Palestinians, as another diplomatic setback. The rapprochement between Ankara and Tel Aviv will have a direct impact on the Syrian crisis rather than the siege of Gaza or the peace process.
President Obama left the region having restored his tarnished image in Israel while washing his hands from previous commitment to the Palestinians.
Now his Secretary of State John Kerry will take over. While resuming peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians will be considered one of the objectives of Kerry’s regional tour, the main focus of US foreign policy will be on Syria and Iran.
The Palestinians, under President Mahmoud Abbas, will be pressured to resume negotiations without prior terms. The US is no longer a broker of talks but rather a facilitator who now sees the conflict from Israel’s perspective only. This opens the discussion on the future of America’s standing in this region as a superpower. Abandoning the Palestinians is one of many new approaches to the region in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.