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 66.

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

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    Comment number 65.

    All war & killing is horrible, we all know this in our hearts. Just ask the returned veterans, just ask anyone who has lived through and suffered through wars. Let's find new constructive jobs that help the planet & humanity for the workers who work for the Industrial military complex. If Russia & China want to stay communist then fine, let them & if the west wants democracy, then thats fine too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 64.

    "Powerful words"? "Charm offensive"? Is Obama running for president of the Middle-east? He might as well have stayed home. The trip is all PR. Like all american presidents he dribbled the same old tired line about getting along and that it's up to the parties to decide while blatanly supporting Israel's position, It means Nothing! The illegal settlements will go on. Obama = AIPAC.

  • Comment number 63.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 62.

    "Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner meets with Israeli-Palestinian delegation Peace NGO Forum and announces Argentina will spearhead the Latin American role in reinvigorating the peace process."
    that she compared the Falkland islanders to the Israeli settlers of the West Bank says something about how useful these talks are really...

  • rate this

    Comment number 61.

    Regular talking & listening properly is always important, between husbands & wives & children & relatives & of course between countries. Especially constructive peace talks. Months or years of deliberate silence after arguments is the wrong way & goes no where fast. All countries need to always talk real peace & have constructive approaches to disagreements & build confidence & trust.

  • rate this

    Comment number 60.

    President Carter was the only president who really tried to get peace in the middle east.

    Since Truman recognized Israel as a state - no one has listened to the Palestinian/Arab side of the issue - so yes they are really upset about that to the point of rage.

  • rate this

    Comment number 59.

    Arabs speak of the propaganda by 'palestinians' that lead them to flee their homes.

    'palestinians' need to face up to past wrongs.

    Abbas made a half-hearted confession that the 'palestinians' made a 'mistake'


    That's some 'mistake' Abbas. Quite a few lives lost for a 'mistake' which was born out of greed.

  • Comment number 58.

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

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    Comment number 57.

    "Who can challenge the rights of the Jews to Palestine? Good Lord, historically, it is really your country."
    - Yusuf Diya al-Khalidi, Mayor of Jerusalem, in 1899.

    APRIL 23 1948 Jamal Husseini, of the Palestine Arab Higher Committee (AHC), told the UN Security Council: "The Arabs did not want to submit to a truce. They preferred to abandon their homes, belongings and everything they possessed."

  • rate this

    Comment number 56.



    "For example, the BBC will refer to illegal settlements built in clear breach of international law, but then qualifies it by saying it's a law that Isreal disputes. That's all right then."

    A popular misconception...


  • rate this

    Comment number 55.

    God I vhope so - the world does not need yet another mindless war killing the innocent.

    The only winners are the arms and war technology companies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 54.

    Obama's visit has certainly helped to jump-start peace-talks. He was certainly following a a carefully prepared script that would not hurt delicate relationships with Israel. He stressed the importance of dialogue as the best way to ease tensions. He has tried to reach out to to both sides in his non-abrasive manner. This was certainly a charm offensive, a carefully balanced appeal to both sides.

  • rate this

    Comment number 53.

    Usual drivel by the right-w(h)ingers: Here are their new commandments.
    Thou shalt:
    - smear anyone who disagrees with you as being an anti-Semite
    - claim the land was given to you by God instead of being stolen by Euro colonisers
    - dehumanise & delegitimise the Palestinians as terrorists
    - obfuscate by raising the issue of Iran & falsely claim Iran wants to "wipe you off the face of the earth"

  • rate this

    Comment number 52.

    The problem is divided politicians, divided nations, divided religions, divided races etc. etc. i.e. people who are too frightened to see the nature of the problem. Forget the divisions and the problems are gone....

    Nah! It can't be that simple... now where did I put that gun...

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    I'm sure the European obsession with deriding Israel is purely down to their love for 'palestinians'.

    So with that in mind, could I ask some of our arm chair European middle east experts, who was the 'palestinain' leader before the Egyptian Arafat?

    What was their national anthem?

    Capital city?

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.



    Actually, you'll find that the Romans killed Jesus. And many, many other Jews.

    And they changed the name of Judea to 'Syria Palaestina', and the name of Jerusalem to 'Aelia Capitolina'.

    And their motives were political, not religious.

  • Comment number 49.

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

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    Comment number 48.

    Pity Obama doesn't concentrate on all the problems which, we are told, face the USA. That's his job, not supreme ruler of the universe despite the Beeb's apparent belief that he is the new messiah.

    Unless and until the USA stops pretending it owns the entire world, it will continue to be reviled, hated and despised except among the UK establishment and media (which are the same thing nowadays).

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    Most of us are in no position to comment because we don't have access to balanced information, thanks to the massive pro-jewish bias of the western media, BBC included.

    For example, the BBC will refer to illegal settlements built in clear breach of international law, but then qualifies it by saying it's a law that Isreal disputes. That's all right then.


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