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2 April 2013, Gateway House

Obama: Still equivocating on Palestine

During his visit to Israel, U.S. President Barack Obama spoke in favour of both the Israelis’ right to security and the Palestinians’ right to sovereignty. The issue of settlements, however, remains unresolved and it is unlikely that Israel will make concessions when its neighbours are in turmoil.

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U.S. President Barack Obama did not go to Israel on March 20 with a new peace plan but with a speech studded with rhetorical flourishes designed to win Israeli hearts, a kind of counter to his famous speech in Cairo, which had raised Palestinian hopes.

In 2009, he had sought to redefine America’s relations with the Muslim world, promising a brave new world built around trust, not suspicion.He delivered little and buckled before Israel’s refusal to stop Jewish settlements on Palestinian land. He found it safer to neglect the region for the remainder of his first term.

At the start of his second term, Obama is making another attempt to bring the two sides to the negotiating table – this time by striking the right notes with Israel. “Palestinians must recognise that Israel will be a Jewish state and that Israelis have the right to insist upon their security,” he said, touching the two weight-bearing pillars of Israeli discourse.

He chose to speak directly to the Israeli people and not to the Knesset – the legislative branch of Israel’s government – as would be the norm. Perhaps he was testing his rock star status among the young or hoping to speak to tomorrow’s leaders. He first took care of the necessities – he said Israel’s security “cannot be taken for granted.” Those who deny Israel’s right to exist, may as well “reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel’s not going anywhere,” he said to loud cheers.  “So long as there is a United States of America, you are not alone.” He talked of how the story of the Jewish people had inspired him.

Obama then took the Zionist narrative and turned the tables. The master orator was back, the one that people remember and admired but had forgotten. He talked of justice for the Palestinians. “Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land,” he said to applause. “Put yourself in their shoes. Look at the world through their eyes. It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day.”

His bottom line: neither “occupation nor expulsion” is the answer but a separate state for the Palestinians.  The speech was received well in Israel and the U.S. Israeli commentator Gideon Levy of the Haaretz newspaper dubbed him “Martin Luther Obama,” calling him a true friend of Israel for having the courage to tell the truth “even when it hurts.”

But in Ramallah, the reception was cold, for his message of change had a déjà vu quality to it. An unsmiling Palestinian leadership and protesters greeted Obama on his two-hour visit. His eloquence abandoned him when pushed on the question of illegal Jewish settlements in East Jerusalem and the West Bank – some 60,000 since he took office. He equivocated and conspicuously failed to repeat his earlier condition that settlement must end if a two-state solution is still the goal. No surprise that Arab commentators brushed off his visit as yet another example of yet another American president succumbing to the need to pander to Israel.

Palestinians have a right to ask Obama: where’s the substance? Good words from a good man still mean little if not backed by actions. Words alone can’t deliver statehood. Palestinians also remember how American conservatives and the pro-Israel lobby very recently maligned Obama’s defense secretary Chuck Hagel for having expressed concern for Palestinian victims in the past. He was deemed anti-Israel. Hagel tied himself in knots trying to explain himself during the nomination process.

Arabs saw Obama’s visit as a kind of reversal of 2009 when he had reached out to the Muslim world with a new kind of language. But he was unable to make a breakthrough and his consequent testy relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu led to a whole another dynamic. He went to Israel to prove that he is not anti-Israel in their opinion. Obama’s hawkish statements on Iran and Syria did not help even though Netanyahu used them to pull back from his extreme position to say that U.S.-led sanctions had worked.

It is unlikely that Israel will make concessions at this time to breathe life into the comatose peace process when its neighbours are in turmoil with Iran threatening to raze Tel Aviv, a bloody civil war raging in Syria and rockets coming from Gaza – two landed in southern Israel just as Obama arrived.

Be that as it may, Obama did reshuffle the deck somewhat by trying to prick the Israeli conscience with his speech. He raised the possibility of justice for the Palestinians, something that no U.S. president had done as clearly. He also recalibrated his position by linking Palestinian sovereignty with Israeli security and leaving out the question of settlements.

In 2009, he had demanded Israel put a freeze on building new settlements, which Netanyahu ignored with aplomb. Obama’s new approach is that if Israel’s security is guaranteed and Palestinians get a state with agreed borders, the problem of settlements would be automatically solved. Once the borders are negotiated, any settlements on the Palestinian side would be demolished.

How the two parties get there would be the test of Obama’s secretary of state John Kerry, who will lead the exploratory process.

Seema Sirohi, an international journalist and analyst, is a frequent contributor to Gateway House: Indian Council on Global Relations. Seema is also on Twitter, and her handle is @seemasirohi

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