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Analysis

For Palestinians, Obama’s visit was more bitter than sweet

Widely seen in the West Bank to have clearly favored Israel over the Palestinians on his three-day visit, Obama may have undermined his own peace mission

Elhanan Miller is the former Arab affairs reporter for The Times of Israel

A Jordanian protester holds a placard that reads "America is the head of terrorism," during a protest near the Israeli Embassy against the visit by US President Obama to the region, in Amman, Jordan, Thursday, March 21, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Raad Adayleh)
A Jordanian protester holds a placard that reads "America is the head of terrorism," during a protest near the Israeli Embassy against the visit by US President Obama to the region, in Amman, Jordan, Thursday, March 21, 2013. (photo credit: AP/Raad Adayleh)

If one were to ask the average Palestinian whether he would have preferred US President Barack Obama not come to the region at all, the answer would most likely be yes.

For Palestinians, Obama’s three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories was not merely disappointing, it bordered on offensive.

Diplomatically, the Palestinian gambit was for the international community to exert pressure on Israel to resume negotiations after having frozen building in the settlements, recognizing a Palestinian state on the 1967 lines, and freeing pre-Oslo prisoners languishing in Israeli jails. A clear timetable for the final outcome of negotiations would also have been nice.

But Obama offered the exact opposite. Backtracking on the settlement-freeze policy of his first term, the American president told the press in Ramallah that it would be unrealistic for Palestinians to expect an Israeli settlement freeze as a precondition for negotiations.

‘Obama reminds us of uncle Tom from the famous American novel, that ‘negro’ servant who erases his humanity and dignity before his white master,’ wrote Palestinian journalist Abdel Bari Atwan

Another point of contention was the Israeli demand for Palestinian recognition of Israel as a “Jewish” state. Here too Obama came down on the side of Israel.

“I believe that Israel is rooted not just in history and tradition, but also in a simple and profound idea: the idea that people deserve to be free in a land of their own,” Obama stated in his keynote Jerusalem speech. A day earlier, in his opening remarks at Ben-Gurion Airport, Obama referred to Israel as “the historic homeland of the Jewish people” dating back 3,000 years.

On the substantial issues, therefore, Obama left the Palestinians with nothing.

It was little surprise, then, that the only heckler at Obama’s Jerusalem speech was Rabia Id, an Arab Israeli student from the northern town of Eilaboun, who decided to evoke the memory of pro-Palestinian American activist Rachel Corrie, killed (accidentally, an Israeli court ruled) in 2003 by an Israeli bulldozer in Rafah, just as the president was speaking of the unbreakable bonds between the two countries.

“This was my only way to make my voice heard and convey the message he needed to hear, not just the message he gets from the Israeli side,” Id later told the Israeli news site Ynet.

As for Obama, he was unscathed by the heckling. “This is part of the lively debate that we talked about,” he retorted instantly, scoring another point. “This is good.”

For the Palestinians, the president’s itinerary said it all. Iron Dome, private music concerts, high-tech and innovation, the Israel Museum, Yad Vashem and Mt. Herzl. On the Palestinian side, the only cultural stop was the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem — a visit that lasted less than half-an-hour and was followed by no public statements. Even that little was a bone thrown to the Christians, not the Muslims.

They say parents can’t play favorites, but that’s what the lanky dad from Washington did with his two feuding children. Just like his predecessors George W. Bush and Bill Clinton, it was widely noted in Ramallah, he spent most of his time here speaking to the Israelis about the Palestinians. Following his resonant 2009 Cairo speech, many Palestinians thought Obama was something else, making the disappointment this time all the more poignant.

“We were mistaken to expect the man to be different, given his skin color and the fact that he belongs to a group which suffered centuries of oppression,” wrote Palestinian publicist Abdel Bari Atwan, the frequently outspoken editor of the London-based daily al-Quds al-Arabi, on Friday.

“We thought he would be more understanding of our suffering as Palestinians under the racist Israeli occupation. But he disappointed us, reminding us of uncle Tom from the famous American novel, that ‘negro’ servant who erases his humanity and dignity before his white master.

“I have never in my life witnessed a president who so flattered the Israelis and begged for their satisfaction, singing praise for their achievements and history,” wrote Atwan with typical hyperbole.

They say parents can’t play favorites, but that’s plainly what the lanky dad from Washington did with his two feuding children

Truth be told, the Palestinians had set themselves up for this disappointment. Obama’s optimistic vision that this bloody conflict could somehow breed a win-win outcome, a vision so quintessentially American, is foreign to most Palestinians.

Viewed rather as a zero-sum game where one side’s gain is the other’s loss, the Palestinians are increasingly regarding themselves as the losers. Such desperation may not bode well for the future.

A group of Israeli journalists covering the Palestinian beat were listening together Thursday to the superlatives piled on Israel by Obama during parts of his Jerusalem speech. “There he goes, knocking the nails into the coffin of the PA,” one of them remarked bitterly. The fact that Obama went on to challenge Israelis to internalize their strength and achievements and have the guts to push their leaders to take risks for peace, was seen by many of these reporters as unlikely to resonate widely among the Palestinians.

Unintentionally, in striving with such success to “reset” his relationship with Israelis, Obama may have undermined the mission of peace he came to advance. By so flaunting his solidarity for Israel, he may have further weakened the legitimacy of the relatively American-oriented West Bank Palestinian leadership in the eyes of its people.

“The visit divided the city [of Ramallah] in two,” claimed a video report produced Thursday by the al-Quds daily. “The fortified city of the Muqata’a [the presidential compound], and Ramallah, which turned its face away from the guest.”    

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