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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  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Will there be peace= NO

    Why? Because there is a G-d involved and he likes bloodshed and wars in his name. We have seen it throughout the human history.

    Jews killed Jesus, then Christian killed Jews and now Jews are killing Palestinians, all in the name of GOD.

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.



    Yes, Comrade! The glorious examples of Mao Tse-tung and General Secretary Stalin prove beyond all doubt that communism never hurt anyone!

    Now, where did I put that red flag...

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.


  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    According to reports, the 'palestinians' are now not only demanding a halt to settlements, they're also demanding the release of prisoners too, before ANY negotiations.

    So hang on, they want convicted terrorists responsible for hundreds of deaths released before they'll even negotiate?

    Just shows the status quo suits them, billions in aid and Europeans on board to delegitimise Israel. Win win.

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    There will be no peace while the USA still backs up everything Israel wants.
    I favour a one state solution: Palestine!

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    There may be peace talks, but I can't say I trust either side to respect any resulting agreements. Usually anti-Islam I have to say I'm even more anti-Israel on this one based on past experience. I do think the USA should step aside and stop taking sides. Why is there no common sense in politics?

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Obama is nothing more than a puppit, controlled by lobbyists. His visit is meaningless for peace purposes, it's more to make his handlers happy.

    There is only one way to achieve peace in this world, eradicate religion from society. God has promised too many things to too many people. Land for these people land for those people, we are chosen ones, no no we are chosen ones, BS

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    When we're talking about peace with palestinians, can we discuss the fact they don't even have peace within themselves?

    And what of their other neighbours? Egypt has closed its border to Gaza and destroyed the tunnels because palestinians have been involved in terrorism against Egyptians.

    Jordan hasn't wanted much to do with them since black September.

    Why though, if they are so peace loving?

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    33. sanbag
    "inhabited for millennia"

    That's just it: they haven't. Jews and Palestinians are genetically the same people. Some people left, taking their religion with them, and those that remained behind converted to Islam. Now the Jews who left have returned, and expect a land they haven't "inhabited for millennia" to be theirs, with no concern for the existing inhabitants. Ludicrous concept.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    We all now there won't be any peace, I don't think either side want it, and of course there is the problem in that they both believe in sky fairies!

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    He is visiting Petra today, what do you think the chances of them not being ruins when he leaves are?

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    Religion is all poison, nowt Obama wants do about that!

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    29. sanbag
    "Why has my post ... been removed?"

    Perhaps because you're focussing on the past, and the actions of just one side, when both are equally guilty of killings. Given the emphasis of Obama's speech is on leaving the past behind and moving forward, your one-sided bias isn't helpful or conducive to peace. "They did X, so we can do Y" is just stupid blood-feud reasoning.

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Why is it the case that a million Arabs live in Israel, but Jews can't live on land they have inhabited for millennia in Judea & Samaria (west bank)?

    Why is it every Jew has to be removed for a Jew-free palestine?

    Yet Israel is castigated by the European obsessives for merely calling itself the Jewish state and at the same time, they rabidly support the expulsion of Jews to create a 'palestine'

  • rate this

    Comment number 32.

    Does America want peace ?!

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Anybody who believes that Mr. Obama's visit has to do with anything with peace is a naive.

    If the USA stop using veto in the UN, apply the same sanction as against Iran, stop billions of unjustified aid to Israel peace will return within a week.

    There are only two possibilities, either peace is no in Americas interests or Israeli lobby in the USA a too strong to deal with.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    Create ONE state, call it "Palesrael", and ban all outward expression of religious faith. That's the only way peace will happen.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    Why has my post listing the terrorist attacks by palestinians that come directly after peace talks been removed?

    Surely if we're talking about the possibilities of peace, it's worth pointing out why they have failed in the past?

    How about on the eve of Jordan and Israel signing a peace treaty? how did the Palestinians respond?


  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    It might and then again, it might not.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    Nothing will change in the Middle East until the control of the US government is wrested from the very wealthy and influential minority that has vetoed every legal UN sanction against the rogue state of Israel. America is not an honest broker and can never be while AIPAC continues to pull the strings.


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