Barack Obama’s upcoming visit to three key states in the Middle East — Israel, Palestine and Jordan — for the first time as president of the US has been described by his Secretary of State, John Kerry, merely as a bid to “listen” to the three leaders.
Well and good, but surely the American president has tens of capable diplomats serving him in the volatile region and who must have been reporting to him (and his secretary of state) about the major concerns of his hosts — concerns that are very serious and that need to be resolved sooner than later.
It is well know that Israel was annoyed that at the start of his first term. Obama chose to go to Cairo, where he addressed a large audience, eloquently spelling out his views about the region and elsewhere. His trip to the Egyptian capital upset the Israelis who felt slighted since Obama did not bother to stop at nearby Israel. Israelis and their influential and moneyed supporters in the US rallied against the American president, as was recently witnessed in the confirmation hearings of defence secretary-designate, Chuck Hagel.
This time around, Obama ought to realise that his chance of launching an urgently-needed peace initiative between the Israelis and Arabs is limited, partly because of the other serious domestic issues as well the notion that all second-term presidents lose their power within a year or 18 months. Often they are considered lame-duck leaders.
Some detractors also see his visit next month as a bid to pacify Israel and its supporters in the US. As a matter of fact, support for Israel within the US has markedly diminished of late. For example, Israel’s Defence Minister, Ehud Barak, was surprisingly chastised on a popular TV programme, 60 Minutes, for continuing with illegal colony growth on Palestinian land, while at the same time expecting nearly $1 billion (Dh3.67 billion) from the US government to build its “Iron Domes”. Bob Simon, the CBS reporter, asked the Barak: “How does that work?” knowing that the Obama administration is against this expansion. Barak seemed befuddled, saying: “We are in the middle of an election campaign.” He refused to elaborate.
Needless to say, the illegal Israeli colonies, established since 1967, are bound to be a hot topic when Obama meets separately Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, and Jordanian King Abdullah. A UN fact-finding mission had earlier this month called on Israel to withdraw all the 500,000 Israeli colonists from Israel-occupied West Bank or else it could face prosecution for war crimes. Christine Chanet, a French judge who led the UN inquiry, told a news conference that to transfer its own (Israeli) population into an occupied (Palestinian) territory is prohibited because it is “an obstacle to the exercise of the right to self-determination”.
Now that Palestine has been admitted to the UN as a non-member observer state, Palestinians are entitled to raise the Israeli colony issue before the International Criminal Court, since Tel Aviv’s action amounts to war crimes, the UN fact-finding mission explained.
Israel’s National Security Adviser, Yaakov Amidror — according to Haaretz, the left-leaning Israeli daily — has recently warned Netanyahu that it has become impossible to win approval for Israel’s colony policy anywhere in the West.
There is no doubt that Obama’s plate will be full as he meets the Mideast leaders. But, for example, Israel still continues to withhold tax revenues it collects on behalf of the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) as punishment for the UN’s acceptance of Palestine as a non-member state last November. Meanwhile, labour unions, school teachers and government employees have been on strike because harsh Israeli actions have limited the budget of the PNA.
The chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) in the US, Maen Rashid Areikat, writing in the Los Angeles Times last Tuesday, noted that hope for the Palestinians “is mixed with apprehension over the future”. He explained: “Despite the persistence of the Israeli occupation, the Palestinian leadership has affirmed a culture of nonviolence. This has been reflected in Palestinian political prisoners (in Israel) waging hunger strikes and villagers erecting tents to protest the confiscation of Palestinian land. Palestine’s admission to the United Nations as a non-member observer state falls within this context of peaceful, diplomatic, political struggle.”
All are waiting to see whether Obama can, this time around, be firm about his peace-seeking intentions or else the region will remain in chaos and the chances of a two-state solution will vanish for good.
George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org