Once Barack Obama shockingly unveiled his true and one-sided views regarding a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement at last week's meeting in Washington of the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), it became obviously clear that he has unwittingly disqualified himself as the much-promised instrument of "change" or that "we can" help bring about an honourable end to the decades-old conflict. It is doubtful that he had a sudden memory lapse about the severe nosedive the US standing in the Middle East had taken, in part, because of the Bush administration sat on its hands for seven years without move forward to pacify the region.
The pandering that followed was inexplicable because he seemed to no longer needed the money or the votes to win over these Zionist hardliners linked with this influential AIPAC group. The outcry against the Democratic Party's presumptive nominee's judgment was deafening, coming from varied groups, domestically and internationally.
A Washington Post columnist underlined the Obama turnaround when he noted that "a mere 12 hours" after claiming the nomination of his party in the presidential race, Obama "changed himself into an Israeli hardliner", promising that "[occupied] Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided."
In fact, Dana Milbank observed that Obama, "who has generally declined to wear an American-flag pin, wore a joint US-Israeli pin, and even tried a Hebrew phrase on the crowd," which gave him more than a dozen ovations.
At one point, Milbank continued, "(Obama) almost sounded as if he were Jewish." The African-American senator was quoted as saying, "I had grown up with a sense of roots," adding, and much to the obvious surprise of his audience, "I understood the Zionist idea, that there is always a homeland at the centre of our story."
The Arab reaction to the "grovelling and fawning", as one British colleague described it, that took place at AIPAC, "the one organisation whose former officials face trial for spying on the United States", as another British journalist noted, was loud and clear. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas declared emphatically, "We will not accept a Palestinian state without having [occupied] Jerusalem as the capital of a Palestinian state."
The Washington Post unintentionally dealt him a severe whiplash: Obama's pronouncements were "not very much different from that of the Bush administration - or that of Republican John McCain," the presumptive presidential nominee.
Whatever, the Arab world, especially the Palestinians, should not expect too much from an Obama administration should he -as he is seen as most likely - win the presidential election next November. Even though he has promised that his administration would give the Palestinian-Israeli conflict immediate attention unlike both the Clinton and Bush administrations, who waited until the closing months of their terms to search for a fair solution.
Soon after leaving the AIPAC conference, Obama began back-tracking, especially when he was confronted by a CNN reporter saying the Israelis and Palestinians will have to negotiate over the future of the Holy City. "Well, obviously, it's going to be up to the parties to negotiate a range of these issues. And [occupied] Jerusalem will be part of those negotiations."
Although the senator acknowledged that dividing occupied Jerusalem "would be very difficult to execute", he said , "I think that it is smart for us to - to work through a system in which everybody has access to the extraordinary religious sites in Old Jerusalem, but that Israel has a legitimate claim on that city." Likewise the Palestinians.
Within the municipal boundaries of occupied Jerusalem under the British mandate, which ended in 1947, "overall Jewish ownership had not exceeded 24 per cent." However, in the last months of the mandate, the Jewish forces captured 84.13 per cent of the city, later called West Jerusalem, within which Jewish land ownership approached 30 per cent. "What was left in Arab hands - East Jerusalem - constituted 11.48 per cent" of municipal Jerusalem, reported Professor Walid Khalidi in a study he has undertaken for The Journal of Palestine Studies.
The Palestinians have a tough year ahead since the likelihood of a serious movement towards an agreement cannot possibly be achieved before the end of Bush's term in January.
The Palestinians should not expect any tangible or fair agreement as long as the feuding continues among Fatah and Hamas. Once they are reconciled they would be better off to follow in the footsteps of others in the region, that is, seeking regional intermediaries as is the case at present with Turkey which is helping both Syria and Israel in settling their border dispute, and Egypt which is mediating between Israel and Hamas to end the Israeli blockade of Gaza, which president Jimmy Carter recently described to a British newspaper as "one of the greatest human rights crimes on Earth".
An American role to seal any of these bilateral agreements is necessary only in the closing months and once it can serve as an honest broker. This will give the new US administration time to feel its way in this complicated region, time neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis can afford to squander.
George Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org