Arab street view of Obama’s Mideast visit

By Tariq A. Al Maeena

Ordinary people agree that the US president wasted a historic opportunity to restart stalled peace negotiations between Israelis and Palestinians by spending his time on rhetoric rather than action

US President Barack Obama’s recent visit to Israel and Jordan raised expectations among some observers that stalled peace negotiations would finally resume under the firm directions of a second-term US president.

However, in the eyes of many residents I communicated with, the visit appeared to lack bite and for the most part, there was disappointment. Among the views I would like to share are the following:

Mona, a Saudi school teacher, said: “What did the president exactly do? He came, he saw, and then he went back! There were no substantial breakthroughs and no treaties signed between the Israelis and the Palestinians. And so, we shall continue to see the following … Israeli encroachment on Palestinian land while the Palestinians get squeezed further and further.”

Hans, a German engineer, said: “It is naive to expect anything from a US president. The reality, if one follows the news, is that there is a force behind the scenes that runs foreign policy. In fact, we are witnessing such manoeuvring even in US domestic issues today, such as the economy or gun control. But getting back to foreign policy … powerful lobbies will always ensure an unbalanced US approach to Arab-Israeli affairs, one that will continue to favour the Israelis over Arab interests. One must not think otherwise.”

 

Sami, a Palestinian working in Saudi Arabia, said: “I was one of those eagerly looking forward to his arrival. I felt that Mr Obama in his second term would break away from Israeli influence and bring about a fair and just solution. Instead, he visited the holocaust memorial wearing a yarmulke and laid a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism.

“Do you know what the Israeli ambassador to the US said immediately after that ceremony? I quote, ‘By laying a wreath at Herzl’s grave just now, an act that other foreign leaders have refused to do, President Obama was reaffirming Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state’. That ceremony was the first thing the Israelis insisted upon when the trip was being planned.

“He said the holocaust would never happen again. There is an ongoing holocaust, and it has been so for the past 70 years against the Palestinian people. Does he fail to recognise that? At the site, he was humble and genial enough to say that, ‘Nothing equals the wrenching power of this sacred place, where the totality of the holocaust is told. We could come here a thousand times, and each time our hearts would break’.

“Why does he not express similar words for the innocent souls of our people killed by the Zionist encroachment on our lands? If gas chambers were used then, cluster bombs and phosphorous incendiaries are used now. What is the difference? Perhaps we should build our own holocaust memorial, and insist that whenever a US president is in the region, he must don a kafiyeh and pay his respects there.

“He spent a large portion of his trip in Israel holding several meetings with Benjamin Netanyahu, their prime minister. Then he took off for a very brief visit to Ramallah in the West Bank where he proceeded to tell Mahmoud Abbas to drop their demands for a freeze in the continued building of illegal Israeli colonies on Palestinian land in order for peace talks to continue. Does he expect the two parties to seriously sit down and talk peace while the land beneath one of them slowly disappears under the control of the other?

“And what of Israeli occupation of our lands and the continuous torture and killing of our people? Did he sound off enough convincing arguments? No, on the contrary, it was a tame speech he delivered to students in [occupied] Jerusalem, casually ignoring that the main obstacle to peace is Israeli commitment to illegally encroach upon our lands and build illegal colonies.”

Ali, a Saudi banker, said: “It was foolish of some to expect that Obama came to the region to discuss Arab-Israeli affairs. He was in Israel to discuss options on Iran. There were some customary public relations releases on peace talks between the Palestinians and the Israelis, but the real agenda was Iran.

“If he was really serious about bringing the two parties to the table for meaningful negotiations, would he have taken a day off to go sightseeing in Petra? As long as the US does not play the impartial broker between the Palestinians and the Israelis, there will be little or no support for them against Iran on the Arab street.”

Badr from the UAE said: “I followed his visit and speeches on Al Jazeera. Obama is good at what he does. He talks and talks. He uses the right rhetoric, but does it ever amount to anything? He could have seized the opportunity this time around to end the stalled negotiations and make inroads in the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians that has been going on for decades. He is after all the US president. But in studying the visit, I began to feel that it was all an orchestrated Israeli public relations stunt, with Obama saying just the right things. A visit of no significance, that’s what I say.”

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