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As Obama does about-face on settlements, Palestinians question US as 'honest broker'

Speaking in Ramallah today, President Obama reversed US insistence on an Israeli settlement freeze before peace talks could begin. The reversal highlights Palestinian frustrations. 

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President Obama waves to media as he walks with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas (r.) as he arrives at the Muqata Presidential Compound Thursday, March 21, 2013, in the West Bank town of Ramallah.

Carolyn Kaster/AP

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As President Obama arrived in Ramallah for a short visit today, he faced widespread disillusionment that America has the ability or willingness to be a fair arbiter in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict – even with a historic leader at its helm, who has sought to fashion himself after Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King Jr. and the freedom they espoused.

“I think this visit is insulting to the Palestinian people, to prisoners, to the martyrs killed for the revolution,” said Majdi, a young man on the sidelines of a protest in Ramallah two days ahead of Mr. Obama’s arrival. “I expect our President Abbas to tell him that the Palestinian people need to see a change in American policies because all we’ve seen America do is support the Israeli regime.”

But any such requests on the part of Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas during his 90-minute meeting with Obama were overshadowed by a remarkable American about-face on one of the issues that rankles Palestinians the most: continued Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank. It's something that is steadily eating away at the possibility of establishing a viable, contiguous state. Today there are twice as many Israelis living in the West Bank and East Jerusalem than when the 1993 Oslo Accords, which set in motion a future Palestinian state, were signed.

Four years ago, Obama’s team came out swinging, demanding a complete Israeli freeze to settlement building as a precondition to renewed negotiations. Israel agreed to a 10-month settlement freeze, but negotiations with the Palestinians never got off the ground. Today Obama reiterated that he and his predecessors did not consider settlement activity “to be constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance the cause of peace,” but he implied that demanding another settlement freeze could simply delay negotiations on the real issues without building any trust.

“Let’s not put the cart before the horse,” he said. “If the only way to even begin the conversations is that we get everything right at the outset … then we’re never going to get to the broader issue – which is how do you actually structure a state of Palestine that is sovereign, contiguous, and provides the Palestinian people dignity, and how do you provide Israel confidence about its security, which are the core issues.” 

'Fundamental contradiction'

Israel, a country of 7 million and a key strategic partner of the United States on military and intelligence matters in the Middle East, has long been the No. 1 recipient of US foreign aid, receiving roughly $3 billion a year. The PA gets about $500 million annually.

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The US is a signatory to the 1993 Oslo Accords, which were sealed with a handshake in front of President Bill Clinton on the White House lawn, and has long been seen as the only power that could successfully mediate between Israel and the Palestinians. But its dual status as Israel’s best friend, which Obama has been heavily emphasizing on his trip thus fair, complicates the US role, writes Prof. Stephen Zunes, chair of Middle Eastern Studies at the University of San Francisco, in an e-mailed statement.

“There has always been a fundamental contradiction between the United States being the sole mediator in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the primary military, economic, and diplomatic supporter of the Israeli government, which continues to illegally occupy and colonize Palestinian land seized in the 1967 war," he writes, referring to Israel’s capturing of the West Bank and Gaza in a brief but devastating war with its Arab neighbors.

US defers to Israel on negotiation terms

Rashid Khalidi, author of the recent book “Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East,” was part of the Palestinian delegation that worked to end Israel’s occupation and create a Palestinian state leading up to the 1993 Oslo Accords. He says that at every turn the Americans would defer to Israel on key issues, such as Israeli security control of any eventual Palestinian state, Israeli control over Jerusalem, and Israeli control of water.

“You couldn’t talk about anything that broke that ceiling,” says Professor Khalidi, who teaches modern Arab studies at Columbia University in New York. “The Americans would not go beyond Israel on these issues.”

The Palestinians were relegated to negotiating the terms of Israeli control of water, land, and the continuing occupation, he says.

“These are the details of the cage you’re in,” says Khalidi, “How fat the bars are, how wide a space between the bars, how large a window you have, how big the slot is through which you get your food.”

Khalidi doesn’t see US policy changing course anytime soon, due in part to the outsized influence of the pro-Israel lobby on Capitol Hill. But other Palestinians see the American president as strong enough to rein in Israel, if he so desired.

“Why not? [Bush] told Iraq to get out of Kuwait and they didn’t, so they launched a war,” says Hazem Kawasmi, a businessman in the West Bank at the Ramallah protest. “We want [Obama] to be bold about it. He’s a great speaker; we want him to be a great achiever.” 

Palestinian divisions

While there was plenty of blame directed at the US, however, some also criticized Palestinian leadership.

Palestinians for Dignity, which organized the March 19 protest in Ramallah, issued a press release saying it is “hypocritical and disingenuous” of the Palestine Liberation Organization to disregard the Obama administration’s veto of PLO efforts to be recognized as a state at the United Nations.

But some say that such internal divisions are to blame for the lack of Palestinian statehood today. And a total break between the Fatah-dominated PA and Hamas, which governs Gaza, means that any deal struck between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas would not have much bearing in Gaza.

That was put in stark relief this morning, as two rockets from Gaza landed in southern Israel while Abbas awaited Obama's arrival in the West Bank.

“Palestinians have a big problem – we didn’t love each other, we didn’t stick together,” said a protester who gave her name only as Linda. “If we had stuck together, we wouldn’t have let any Jews into the country. Our president sold us to the Jews a long time ago.”

While many expressed a sense of hopelessness, the word on the street is that Obama’s new secretary of State, John Kerry, will be returning this weekend and is working toward a trilateral summit between Obama, Abbas, and Mr. Netanyahu.

“Obama has always said, I can, I can deliver,” says Majdi, on the sidelines of the protest. “Why can’t he deliver for the Palestinian people?”

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