Over and over, American officials insist that President Obama has no new Israeli-Palestinian peace plan hidden in his pocket, ready to be whipped out during next week’s meetings with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But Palestinians hope and Israelis fear that he will try to restart a peace process that has been moribund for the past four years.
“President Obama’s visit is hopefully the beginning of the renewal of American attention and engagement here,” Ghassan Khatib, a professor of cultural studies at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian spokesman told The Media Line. “But 99 percent of Palestinians believe that American official policy is biased towards Israel. We need to see if it’s just a visit or an event with serious consequences.”
Netanyahu has said that the three main issues on the agenda are Iran, Syria and the Palestinian issue.
“I can assure you that the Palestinian issue will be addressed in depth,” Israeli foreign ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor told The Media Line.
Israeli analysts say that it seems unlikely that, despite his protestations to the contrary, that Obama is really coming only to listen.
“The Americans are trying to lessen expectations but its hard for me to believe President Obama will come and not talk about renewing negotiations,” Shlomo Brom, an expert on the Palestinians at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) told The Media Line. “The question is how much he will be willing to pressure both sides. If we look at his past term, the answer is not much.”
US policy has adopted the two-state solution, calling for an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank, Gaza and east Jerusalem alongside Israel. Palestinian officials warn that time is running out for such a solution.
“If Netanyahu is allowed four more years of “settlement” expansion, that means the end of any chance of two states,” Khatib said. “The only party that can make a difference here is the US government.”
Israeli officials agree that the US has the power to affect change on the issue.
“Netanyahu might think he only wants to talk about the Iranian issue,” a senior Israeli official told The Media Line on condition of anonymity. “But for the Americans the Iranian issue and the Palestinian issue go hand in hand. It is possible that the President Obama will work toward a trilateral summit with Netanyahu and Abbas.”
The visit comes as an Israeli government has not yet been formed, although it seems likely that there will be a coalition by the President’s arrival next Wednesday. Obama originally said he would postpone his trip if Netanyahu had not succeeded in forming a coalition but later changed his mind.
In any case, it will be a new government with a new Defense Minister and unlikely to make major decisions.
Palestinians say that they hope the President will pressure Israel to stop building in post 1967 areas, and to do more to stop “price-tag attacks” by Israelis who live in the post 1967 areas on Palestinian property and mosques.
“Things can change if Big Brother holds Israel accountable,” Khatib said, referring to the US. “He can say to Israel that if you disregard us, it will affect other aspects of our relationship. Now the US says that “settlements” are illegal and an obstacle to peace but they don’t do anything about it.”
For the first time in decades, the Palestinian issue was barely mentioned during Israel’s elections in January. Most Israelis believe there is little chance of an agreement as long as Palestinians remain divided between Fatah, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza.
“The politicians have convinced the public that there’s no chance for a deal right now,” Shlomo Brom said. “But that could change. I remember when Yitzhak Rabin was elected (in 1992). All of a sudden feelings shifted.”
Rabin, of course, was assassinated by an extremist Jew in 1995. Since then, several attempts at the peace process have failed. But now there is a feeling that it’s now or never.
“Time is not on the side of a moderate, two-state solution,” Khatib warned. “In many places in the Middle East the Islamists are taking over. That could happen here as well.”