THE US President, Barack
Obama, arrived in Israel last week with the ringing declaration
that "peace must come to the Holy Land". But, despite public
pledges to Israeli leaders in Jerusalem, and Palestinian leaders in
the West Bank, that he would support the peace process, he left
without convincing either side that the goal was achievable.
While Mr Obama received
rapturous official and public welcomes in Israel, his reception in
the West Bank was far more reserved, and was accompanied by
From the Palestinian
perspective, the biggest disappointment was that the American
President did not pressure Israel to halt Jewish settlement
expansion on the West Bank. Palestinian leaders insist that
negotiations on peace are out of the question while Israel
continues to build new homes on Arab land.
During his visit to
Ramallah on the West Bank, Mr Obama said he had told Israeli
leaders: "We do not consider continued settlement activity to be
constructive, to be appropriate, to be something that can advance
the cause of peace." But he also rejected the notion of
pre-conditions for peace talks.
During his landmark
speech in Cairo in 2009, Mr Obama had said that the United States
did not "accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements".
He later called on Israel to freeze settlement activity to allow
peace talks to resume - but Israeli leaders ignored his
The hope among Arabs was
that, in his second term, the US President would be tougher on
Israel. But, as the Palestinian Christian commentator Daoud Kuttab
said: "Nothing emerged to break the current deadlock."
Other comments were more
forthright. "Obama spoke of the cancerous Jewish colonies in the
West Bank and Jerusalem as if they were only a minor obstacle to
peace," wrote one Palestinian analyst, "when in fact these
ubiquitous settlements constitute the ultimate killer of any
remaining hope for any semblance of dignified peace."
Palestinians were also
dismayed at the degree to which President Obama emphasised the
United States' unshakeable commitment to Israel and to its historic
right to exist where it does. He said: "The founding of the Jewish
state of Israel was a rebirth - a redemption unlike any in history.
The sons of Abraham and the daughters of Sarah are fulfilling the
dream of the ages."
But some of his comments,
while welcomed by some sections of Israeli society, did not please
the right-wing government of Benjamin Netanyahu. In a speech to
young Israelis in Jerusalem, Mr Obama said, to loud applause, that
peace was "the only path to true security".
"The only way for Israel
to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through
the realization of an independent and viable Palestine." The
President went on: "the only way to truly protect the Israeli
people over the long term is through the absence of war. Because no
wall is high enough . . ."
Naftali Bennet, leader of
the pro-settler Jewish Home party, now a minister in Mr Netanyahu's
cabinet, reacted to Mr Obama's speech by saying that "a Palestinian
state is not the right way forward," and "there is no such thing as
a nation being an occupier in its own land."
President Obama also paid a brief visit to Bethlehem on the West
Bank. Bad weather forced him to travel by road instead of
helicopter, necessitating a drive through the Israeli security wall
that surrounds the town. The Mayor of Bethlehem, Vera Baboun, said
she was pleased that he had seen the barrier: "God willed that Mr
Obama should enter from the gate of reality, rather than from the
sky of unreality."