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After Israeli backslapping, Obama faces Palestinian discontent

by Crispian Balmer and Steve Holland, Reuters

March 20, 2013 | 4:18 pm

A Palestinian steps on an American flag during a protest against the visit of President Barack Obama, in Gaza City, on March 20. Photo by Mohammed Salem/Reuters

A Palestinian steps on an American flag during a protest against the visit of President Barack Obama, in Gaza City, on March 20. Photo by Mohammed Salem/Reuters

President Barack Obama faces a stony reception when he travels to the West Bank on Thursday for talks with Palestinian leaders who accuse him of letting Israel ride rough-shod over their dream of statehood.

Obama has said he will not bring any new initiatives to try to revive long-dormant peace talks and has instead come to Israel and the Palestinian territories for simple consultations.

Arriving in Israel on Wednesday, the main focus of initial discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be pressing regional concerns, primarily Iran's nuclear ambitions and the civil war in neighboring Syria.

After repeated run-ins with Netanyahu during Obama's first term in office, the mood between the two men appeared to be much warmer, angering Palestinians, who blame the 2010 collapse of U.S.-backed peace negotiations on the Israeli leader's expansion of Jewish settlements on land where they want their state.

Obama is to address the decades-old conflict in talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and also in a keynote speech just hours later to a large audience of carefully screened Israeli students in Jerusalem.

But after the lofty ambitions of his first term, when he appointed a special envoy to the Middle East on his very first day in charge and said peacemaking was a priority, it was clear that Obama has now set the bar significantly lower.

"I will consider this a success if, when I go back on Friday, I am able to say to myself I have a better understanding of what the constraints are," he told a joint news conference on Wednesday, standing alongside Netanyahu.

The three-day visit is Obama's first to Israel and the West Bank since entering the White House in 2009, and the inaugural foreign trip of a second and final four-year term that began in January.

Sporadic protests flared in the West Bank and Gaza Strip this week, with Palestinians accusing Obama of not doing enough to halt Israeli settlement-building on land seized in the 1967 Middle East war.

In 2009, Obama bluntly told Israel it had to halt settlement construction, but he later backed away from the demand and made no mention of the enclaves on Wednesday.

Posters depicting Obama were defaced in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem earlier this week and anti-U.S. sentiment bubbled up on social media.

"Do Not Enter," said one poster put up on Facebook, showing Obama's face with a red line crossed through it. "The people of Palestine do not welcome you here."

BACK-SLAPPING

Obama was feted when he arrived at Tel Aviv airport on Wednesday, with Israeli leaders lining up to praise the U.S. president for his firm commitment to the security of the Jewish state and his pledge not to let Iran develop nuclear weapons.

Netanyahu, while citing what he described as Israel's right to defend itself, said effusively that he was "absolutely convinced" that Obama was determined to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Tehran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.

After four years of often icy relations with Netanyahu, the body language suddenly changed. Gone were the pursed lips and ill-disguised scowls. In came firm handshakes and back-slapping.

"Israel has no better friend than the United States of America," Netanyahu said, adding that he hoped his visit would help "turn the page" in relations with the Palestinians.

"Israel remains fully committed to peace and to the solution of two states for two peoples. We stretch out our hand in friendship to the Palestinian people," he added.

Watching from Ramallah, the Palestinian administrative center just outside Jerusalem, Abbas's allies accused Netanyahu of repeating empty rhetoric and said Obama showed no inclination to re-engage with an issue that confounded his predecessors.

"The primary purpose of this visit is Israeli security, Israeli-American relations and saying that the U.S. has its back," said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Obama will fly by helicopter the few miles from Jerusalem to Ramallah on Thursday morning, giving himself a birds' eye view of the walls and fences of the separation barrier between the two cities and of Israeli settlements on surrounding hilltops.

Before that, he will go to a museum in Jerusalem to see the Dead Sea Scrolls - ancient Jewish parchments discovered in the West Bank in the 1940s.

Israeli diplomats say that will help make amends to Israel for a speech Obama made in Cairo in 2009, when he appeared to argue the Jewish state derived its legitimacy from the Holocaust rather than an attachment to the land dating back to the Bible.

Obama will travel to Bethlehem on Friday to visit the Church of the Nativity, and will also lay a wreath on the grave in Jerusalem of Theodor Herzl, the Zionist visionary who died more than four decades before the 1948 founding of Israel.

The U.S. leader will then fly to neighboring Jordan, one of only two Arab states that has made peace with Israel.

Additional reporting by Noah Browning in Ramallah, Nidal al-Mughrabi in Gaza and Matt Spetalnick and Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem; Editing by Alastair Macdonald

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