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Palestinians hold low expectations for Obama visit

Disappointed with the Obama administration, Palestinians don’t expect much from the 5 hours the president will spend in the West Bank next week.

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A Palestinian activist hangs up an anti-Obama poster in the West Bank city of Ramallah on March 11, 2013. Many Palestinians have middling expectations for US President Barack Obama's three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories, a trip that will begin on March 20. (Abbas Momani/AFP/Getty Images)

RAMALLAH, West Bank — The helipad at the Muqataa, the memorial mausoleum where Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is buried in Ramallah, has been swept clean in anticipation of next week's arrival of US President Barack Obama.

But in Ramallah, subdued complacency combined with low expectations will greet the president as he arrives for talks with the Palestinian leadership.

Obama is expected to spend about five hours here on a three-day visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, although recent reports suggest the president could skip Ramallah altogether, meeting President Mahmoud Abbas in Bethlehem.

At the upmarket Plaza Mall, more than half of the shoppers interviewed expressed surprise that Obama was even coming.

"His trip doesn't matter. It's like a game between Israel and Palestine and Obama," said Maida Awad, a social worker. Her husband, Johnny, added, "Israel controls Obama."

"I know he's coming, but he's coming for nothing," said Mahmoud Salouri, a salesman.

The Palestinian government's position, while guarded, is significantly more upbeat.

"We expect some help from President Obama," Nabeel Shaath, one of the most veteran Palestinian diplomats and the Palestinian Liberation Organization's commissioner for foreign relations, said in an interview with GlobalPost. "We will try to create a favorable climate and listen to what he says a solution can be."

According to Shaath, in its discussions with Obama the Palestinian leadership plans to highlight the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian territories, as well as ongoing Israeli settlement activity on land the Palestinians expect to be theirs in a final status agreement.

On Tuesday, the Jerusalem Post quoted a Palestinian official stating that President Mahmoud Abbas would make Palestinian prisoners jailed in Israel the number one issue in discussions with the US delegation.

Close to 5,000 Palestinians, some of whom have pleaded guilty to the murder of Israelis, are held in Israeli jails. Israel claims the majority are terrorists with blood on their hands, but they are celebrated as political prisoners and freedom fighters on the Palestinian street, and in recent weeks their plight has been the cause of protests outside Israeli prisons.

While the issue may be popular among Palestinians, it is difficult to imagine Obama being able or willing to act in the prisoners' regard.

In an initiative equally without prospects, more than 100,000 Israelis have signed a petition calling on Obama to grant clemency to the Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard, who has been imprisoned in the US for 25 years. In a show of support for the petition, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu met last week with Pollard's wife.

Many Palestinians hope Obama, either on this trip or subsequently, will present his own vision for an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Obama has said on numerous occasions leading up to the visit that he has no intention of bringing "a grand peace plan."

Shaath, who has met Obama on several occasions and expressed warmth and personal affection toward him, said he holds Obama "responsible for all prior commitments made by the United States," and that the president's role will be to "translate what he sees and hears here into something implementable."   

"Not a single agreement between us and the Israelis was not co-signed by the United States," he pointed out. "The United States has to decide peace is its own interest."

Highlighting ongoing Israeli settlement building — "they still treat it as contested and not as occupied land," he said —  Shaath added that "selective implementation of agreements is not implementation at all."

Several bugaboos loom in the US-Palestinian talks. The one most potentially difficult to overcome is the attempt by the Palestinian Authority to come to a unity agreement with Hamas, the extremist Islamic faction that rules Gaza and is considered a terror organization by the US.

"We are very close to an agreement but we are not quite there yet,” Shaath said. “Hamas needs to decide about its political bureau and leadership."

If an agreement presents itself, he said, "the United States has to understand that the vast majority of Palestinians want both unity and want a peace process."  

"We would like to see the United States more evenhanded. The way the US reacted to our seeking non-member state status at the UN was unacceptable and inexplicable."

Rather than waiting for a final agreement with Israel to be signed, last September — in what the US termed a "unilateral action" — the Palestinian Authority requested the imprimatur of the United Nations General Assembly for its statehood bid.

More from GlobalPost: UN recognizes non-member state of Palestine in overwhelming vote

More than a few curmudgeonly voices have been heard, among them from Palestinians resentful that following the UN vote, US Congress decided to retain aid funds originally destined for the Palestinian Authority.

Many observers also see Obama's 2009 speech in Cairo, which was delivered in the euphoric early days of his first term and followed up by no specific approach to Israelis, as an error that exacerbated tensions between the US and Israel. In an attempt to remedy the situation, Obama will address 2,000 Israeli students in a Jerusalem speech next week.

"I don't blame Obama for Cairo," Shaath said, recognizing the fraught nature of the subject. "At the time, there was no problem with Israel. The serious problem was with the Muslim world, the Bin Ladens and the Taliban and with Islamophobia in the West."

But others see that speech and its unfulfilled promises as the root of Palestinian disaffection with Obama today.

"Palestinians expected a lot from Obama with those promises in his first term, and gained nothing,” said Hani el Masri, a geopolitical analyst and director of the Ramallah think tank Masarat. “He spoke to Palestinians and Arabs and then he went back to not solving the struggle. Most Palestinians don't believe Obama can give them anything. They see this visit as some kind of PR to show that there is a peace process while Palestinians know very well that there is no peace process, there is only a process without peace."

Quoting a poll published last week, el Masri said that more than 80 percent of Palestinians believe the US is "on Israel's side."

"They see only a small difference between the American administration and the Israeli government," he said, "and they think those differences are exaggerated. The main issue is US support for Israel while Israel continues its aggressions, and settlements, and prisoners, so they see no hope from the American administration at all."

http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/politics/diplomacy/130313/palestinian-low-expectations-obama-visit-US-Israel-west-bank-middle-east-peace-process