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Deadlock remains after Obama visit

28 March 2013

AP

Unfinished business: President Obama boards Air Force One before departing from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, last Friday

Unfinished business: President Obama boards Air Force One before departing from Ben Gurion International Airport in Tel Aviv, last Friday...

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 protests.

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 demands.

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."

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