Will Obama visit prompt new round of peace talks?

Barack Obama (C) poses Palestinian children during a visit to the Church of the Nativity with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) in Bethlehem, West Bank, 22 March 2013 For all the power of Obama's words, the real force for change will come from Israelis and Palestinians

Even in the toughest of neighbourhoods the strongest of words can make a difference.

Masterful words of an American president, delivered with empathy and eloquence, carried force to charm a sceptical Israeli public.

But do they have enough power to push Israelis back to the negotiating table with the Palestinians?

"We need to take a very long breath now," sighed 27-year-old Avinoam Rozenbaum the day after he sat with some 600 other Israeli students to listen to Barack Obama's main speech during his three-day visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories.

"I'm still digesting it," he told me when he came in to our studio in Jerusalem, still visibly affected by the privilege of sitting in a front row of history.

President Obama's carefully crafted "story of Israel" wove an arresting narrative of freedom - from the sacred Jewish holiday of Passover, through the establishment of a Jewish state, to the right of Palestinians to also be "a free people in their own land."

Avinoam heard first-hand the president's call to "the young people of Israel… to write the next chapter in the story of this great nation".

In their shoes

Our conversation brought in a 21-year-old Palestinian student, Karma Abu Ayyash, who watched the speech on television in the West Bank city of Ramallah.

"It gave us hope," she said, speaking from our BBC studio there.

President Obama's message to both sides was that only direct talks would achieve what must be the main goal - "two states for two peoples."

I asked Avinoam and Karma what they would say if they sat across from each other at that negotiating table.

"You must try to see what life is like for us living under occupation," emphasised Karma, echoing the president's call to Israelis to "put yourself in their shoes."

"We need to focus on the future," Avinoam replied just as firmly. "There is no guilty or innocent side."

He took issue with the American president's description of peace as "just".

A young Palestinian studying business and an Israeli doing a Master's degree in diplomacy voiced some of the same sentiments of an older generation who've lived through the decades of tortuous talks marked by violence and venom.

Fig leaf?

The woman who will sit at the table if talks re-start also spoke of new hope.

"He put peace-making back on the agenda," remarked Israel's new Chief Negotiator Tzipi Livni, who praised a speech she described as "brilliant."

The former foreign minister, one of the few Israelis to highlight deadlocked peace talks in recent elections, has just accepted the job of justice Minister in her rival Benjamin Netanyahu's coalition government.

She dismissed suggestions she was the "fig leaf" in a new team dominated by settler leaders and right-wing opponents of peace.

"I wouldn't have joined this government unless I thought Bibi [Netanyahu] understood he has to move forward."

But when I asked her if she agreed with President Obama's view that Israeli settlements were "counterproductive to the cause of peace", she spoke only of the need for Israel's new team to discuss their negotiating strategy.

Israeli settler leader, Danny Dayan, who was also invited to join the audience for the president's main speech, was more emphatic."

"We need more Tony Blair and less John Kerry," he explained when he sat in our office.

As he sees it, it's an approach that emphasises economic cooperation and Palestinian institution building rather than what he dismissed as the new US secretary of state's ambition to "solve it all".

But words like settlements are the ones that matter to Palestinian politicians. And President Obama's remarks on that issue deeply disappointed them.

"It's either settlements or negotiations," insisted Palestinian MP and activist Mustafa Barghouti. "Continued settlement building on occupied land will mean the death of a two state solution."

True partners?

For Palestinians who hailed President Obama's call in 2009 for a settlement freeze, his less forceful language this week was a step backwards.

During this first visit to the Palestinian territories as president, Mr Obama called for negotiations which "get out of some of the formulas and habits that have blocked progress for so long."

These stubborn gaps will now be addressed in painstaking detail by John Kerry when he stays in the region after President Obama goes home. He's made it clear he intends to spend time and effort on this most difficult of missions.

"John Kerry already knows everyone," remarked veteran Palestinian politician Hanan Ashrawi. "The Americans still have a chance to make peace but only if they stand up to the Israelis."

Doubts persist about the Israeli prime minister's commitment to "two states for two peoples" even though he used the same phrase when he stood next to President Obama.

Despite all the hugs and smiles this week, Mr Netanyahu did not echo Mr Obama's statement that Israel had a "true partner" for peace in Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad.

His own senior aides reject those doubts. "I have heard him say many times the same phrase as Ariel Sharon," said one official.

Different road to peace

That phrase used by the former Israeli leader - "It is impossible to have a Jewish, democratic state and at the same time to control all of Eretz [greater] Israel" - was also cited by Mr Obama in his main speech.

"I am optimistic on the tactical level that peace talks will resume," said one Israeli official. "But I can't be sure on the strategic level, at that moment when the crunch comes."

But he added "if the American President is passing the ball to the Palestinians, they'd be mad not to take it."

Many Palestinians, including the young student Karma, pointed to President Obama's visit to Ramallah, with an honour guard and national anthems, "as a recognition of the Palestinian state".

For Avinoam, there's a different road to peace.

"Words have power," he said, "but the key word is trust and we have failed again and again to trust each other."

For all the power of an American president's words, the real force for change will come from Israelis and Palestinians.

Barack Obama knows that.

Lyse Doucet Article written by Lyse Doucet Lyse Doucet Chief international correspondent

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  • Comment number 26.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    "Will Obama visit prompt new round of peace talks?"

    No, because Muslims are following Islam: An ideology which sanctions and mandates warfare against all unbelievers for all time, until Islam reigns supreme over the whole world. Its followers (Muslims) have spent the past 1400 years waging that war against unbelievers.

    Whilst there may be some peaceful Muslims, there is NO peaceful Islam.

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    There won't be peace because Israel doesn't trust the 20-odd Arab nations surrounding it, most of whom privately want what Iran publically want, to drive it into the sea. How is Israel supposed to sit on it's hands with Ahmedinijad pursuing a nuclear 'solution' to his Israeli problem? Lets not forget Fatah & Hamas killing each other for the right to be the chosen Jew-killers. Peace? With them?

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    The problem is that palestinians are deliberately going down a path of refusing peace. They cite 'settlements' as being a hindrance to negotiation. Well, Israel could cite incessant palestinain terrorism as a hindrance.

    Israeli settlements take up 1.7% of Judea & Samaria land. 40% is Palestinian and the majority of the land is totally uninhabited (almost 60%)

    So let's get real here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    What is said in public is largely window dressing. What goes on behind the scenes is usually more important.
    I think the apology to Turkey is very significant.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    Even if President Obama is able to pressure the Israelis and the Palestinians to resume negotiations, I doubt that anything will come of it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.


    The nutters on both sides will never let it happen!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    Will Obama visit prompt new round of peace talks?

    Religious Dogma and sheer ignorance allied to intransigence will prevent it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    I did watch the Obama speech, and I was impressed. I live in the middle east, and form my opinions (for what its worth) based on what I see out here. I guess it's a bit like Northern Ireland really, until we get over the past, there is no future. I am in John Lennon's "Imagine" school of thought!

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    It's difficult to comment on a state that is based on religion, especially a religion that was persecuted within living memory, without sounding bigoted.
    remove the religion from the state and there actions would be condemned by all.
    one wonders if the palestinians would do the same if the tables were turned?

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    I see the usual Lobby are out in force of HYS this morning. As soon as anything anti-isreali is said they are there, shouting it down.

    They carp that anything anti-isreali is somehow anti semetic which is nonesense. Isreal flouts UN law and punishes a whole nation of people. I would hope jews above all would know better.

    This is not anti-semetic, it is anto Isreali governments actions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

    ref #14
    Most of the anti Israel comments show ignorant and bias. But if you are relying on Lyse who missed Obama speech; because he urged the Palestinians to go back to the table, we can't blame you

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    I guess the comments on this forum sum up the situation nicely. Most are fed up with Israel, some are fed up with Palestine and a few are living in hope that there will be some form of peace. I hope the children on both sides will one day achieve what all sides have failed to do so far.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    ref #12
    run roughshod over everyone else as they have done since 1948!
    Attacked by larger forces in 48 and 67
    attacked on Yom Kippur in 73
    enduring 65 years of terrorism

    Those Israelis are so unreasonable. There will not be a repeat of 1930-and 1940 in Nazi Grmany

  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    I seem to remember Mr.Obama telling the Israelis to stop building new settlements in the occupied lands, so far they have not done so but continue to destroy Arab homes etc. whilst this is allowed to continue unabated, any peace talks will be totally meanless & a waste of everyones time, the Israelis MUST play by the rules & not run roughshod over everyone else as they have done since 1948!

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.


    You show an obvious bias when you say will Obama push the Israelis to get back to the negoiating table.

    It is the Palestinians who left the table. You might be able to serve your readers and listeners if you actually listed to Obama's speech.

    He said that the Palestinians should go back to the table without the precondition of settlement freeze.

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    US/Israeli ties remain firm. Obama’s visit reinforces fact.
    It assures continued support. It endorses Israel extremism. It affirms occupation. It lets Israel DO WHATEVER IT LIKES. America’s special relationship does more harm than good. It’s dumb, unbefitting real polticians or negotiations. US policy is crazy - right down to the ongoing conception of a 2-state solution.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    To promote a single faith country when we are considering in the UK the relevance of Faith Schools is ridiculous. We want to live in a modern and evolving multi cultural society but we some how think its OK for others to promote the opposite.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    lets hope hes right and the children can be educated like the kids in Northern Ireland who eventually got fed up of the behaviour of their parents and wanted peace on their terms.

    The problem is if the parents and States of Palestine & Israel keep telling their kids they must be scared of their neighbour they will be, they must learn to love.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    More fine words but nothing will change. Obama will fly out and the Israelis get back to building settlements on stolen land and the Palestinians will get back to plotting the incineration of the Jewish state. Situation normal - nothing to see here.......sadly


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