In Ramallah, Obama faces a tough crowd
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In Ramallah, Obama faces a tough crowd

‘Where is your magic lantern, President Obama?’ asks a Palestinian columnist; leaked Abbas speech demands settlement freeze, prisoner releases

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

Palestinians rip an American flag during a protest against the visit of the U.S. President Barack Obama in Gaza City, Wednesday, March 20, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Adel Hana)
Palestinians rip an American flag during a protest against the visit of the U.S. President Barack Obama in Gaza City, Wednesday, March 20, 2013 (photo credit: AP/Adel Hana)

US President Barack Obama can expect a much cooler reception in Ramallah, which he is due to visit on Thursday, than the one he got on his arrival Wednesday at Tel Aviv’s Ben Gurion Airport.

The American president will find a simmering Palestinian Authority, frustrated by a seemingly intractable stagnation in the peace process, and on the verge of bankruptcy. He will spend little time listening to the Palestinian grievances, though. Obama’s stint in Ramallah will last only five hours, squeezed in between his visit to the Israel Museum to view the Dead Sea Scrolls and his speech to Israeli students in Jerusalem’s convention center. He will return to Bethlehem on Friday, for a short visit to the Church of the Nativity.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s speech was leaked by Palestinian media on Wednesday evening, making the leaders’ public statements somewhat anti-climactic.

In the leaked document, Abbas stresses the Palestinian commitment to peace as “a strategic choice,” but also reiterates the imperative for Israel to release Palestinian prisoners and freeze settlement building before talks can resume, while arguing these are not “preconditions.”

4,000 Palestinian prisoners are serving time in Israeli jails, Abbas will tell Obama, and their plight is “at the top of the agenda of the Palestinian people and its leadership.”

Obama will hold talks with Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad before meeting with local Palestinian students.

On a personal level, Obama will have good reason to rush back to a comfort zone in Israel. His image, as well as the American flag, was defaced and burned in public demonstrations Wednesday in both Gaza and the West Bank. Local Palestinian media captured an image of a masked Palestinian woman holding up a sign in Arabic reading “43 American vetoes [supporting Israel] are a mark of shame on Obama’s forehead.” In Al-Bireh, outside Ramallah, a group of youths removed an American flag from a street sign and trampled it underfoot.

An anti-Obama Palestinian protester, location unknown (photo credit: Facebook/Quds News Network)
An anti-Obama Palestinian protester, location unknown (photo credit: Facebook/Quds News Network)

Palestinian press was no more favorable to the American president. Hafez Barghouti, a leading columnist for PA official daily Al-Hayat Al-Jadidah, claimed that the American people “would not be sad to see our bid for liberation fall,” blasting the Obama administration for kowtowing to the region’s new Islamist regimes.

Hassan Batal, writing for official PA daily Al-Ayyam, compared Obama to a former US president who was arguably more robust in his efforts to bring peace to the region.

“Why did your predecessor Jimmy Carter grab Aladdin’s magic lantern and create cold peace between Egypt and Israel, while you carry no lantern and no magic carpet and no political initiative? Yet you claim that 2014 will be the year of [Palestinian] statehood,” wrote Batal.

There were some kind words too, however. Fatah spokesman Osama Qawasmi stated earlier this week that his party regarded Obama’s visit as “critically important” considering the American influence in the region and Obama’s ability “to pressure the Israeli occupation state into abiding by international law.”

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