Peace in the Middle East? Not this week…

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March 19, 2013 by Nash Riggins

In 2009, President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize “for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples.” In particular, the Nobel Committee cited President Obama’s promotion of nuclear proliferation and his willingness to extend unprecedented levels of diplomacy to the Muslim world as reasons for handing him the award. Let’s hope he’s still well-practiced.

Worldwide expectations are pretty sky-high for Barack Obama’s first Presidential visit to Israel – where threats of safety for the United States’ top regional ally reign supreme, and human rights groups across the globe have expressed disgust at the Israeli government’s handling of the issue of Palestine and its Occupied West Bank. In fact, many would say that expectations for the President’s visit are too high.

Even before Air Force One touches down in Tel Aviv this Wednesday, every party involved in Mr Obama’s trip appears to be playing down any chances whatsoever of an actual breakthrough in the Israeli/Palestinian peace process. Indeed, just after Mr Obama’s diplomatic mission was announced, former Middle East advisor Dennis Ross said that the trip was “a desire to connect with the Israeli public at a time when [Obama] can go and not have high expectations about having to produce something”. In short, don’t hold your breath.

Meanwhile, the Israelis don’t seem too bothered by Obama’s visit. In a poll conducted last week, Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv found that only 10% of Israelis truly like President Obama – while 38% of respondents said they perceived the Obama administration’s attitude towards Israel to be utterly hostile. On the other hand, that’s not to say Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu won’t politicise Mr Obama’s presence as much as possible. Before being sworn in for his third term yesterday, Netanyahu proclaimed that “Obama’s visit will be an opportunity to thank him” and to remind him of the desperate need to “guarantee the future of the Jewish people by guaranteeing the future of the state of Israel, the root of our existence.” No pressure.

Last (and treated as least) are the Palestinians, with whom President Obama is expected to spend no more than 5 hours of face-time. What’s more, choosing the person with whom those 5 hours will be spent has caused much bitterness throughout Palestine. Unsurprisingly, Mr Obama deemed it unwise to meet with Hamas leaders – because, although they are arguably the best source of public opinion within the region, they’ve also been labelled by many as a terrorist organisation. Consequently, it’s worth noting that Hamas have taken the snub to heart, and have since stated that their lack of involvement will only serve to deepen rifts within the region. They’re probably right.

Because the reputation of Hamas is too volatile for an audience with President Obama, the collective voice of Palestinians far and wide will instead have to be channelled via Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Although his time with Mr Obama will be short, said meeting would still be an ideal opportunity to share the all-but-ignored Palestinian narrative in an otherwise one-sided debate regarding sovereignty and human rights. So how will Mr Abbas spend his 5 hours with the ‘leader of the free world’? Trying to get a few Palestinian prisoners freed from Israeli jails.

In fact, Palestinian officials are saying that “the issue of the prisoners will be the No 1 issue during the talks with President Obama”, and any potential peace agreements or two-state solutions are actually pretty low on President Abbas’ list of talking points. Progress incarnate.

So, President Obama may have won over the American people in 2008 preaching a message of hope and change, but it’s fair to say his message will fall on deaf ears when he lands in Israel tomorrow. After all, if we can discern anything from the attitudes of the three parties involved in Mr Obama’s visit, it’s that the Israelis are only worried about looking good and bombing Iran, the Palestinians are too divided to ask for any big favours and Americans are just expecting a cheery photo-op. No amount of persuasion or presidential charm can turn such a lack of optimism into progress. There’s a chance that, someday, a US leader just might be able to get Israelis and Palestinians to hammer out a real peace agreement – but make no mistake, the chances of that happening this week are absolutely zilch.

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