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 106.

    Perhaps Andy_Pandy believes the response to be disproportionate...

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.


    have lots of accounts and be skewing thethe forum?


    Not neccesarily.

    There as organisation of volunteers with strong pro-Israeli beliefs, that calls themselves GIYUS.

    One of their functions is promote pro-Israeli sentiment on forums like this.

    If 'Sanbag' is doing exceptionally well, it may just be because the call has gone out to the other volunteers.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    Are you trying to say you are amazed that not everyone has your bias?

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    Note comments 87 and 88. Sanbag has the same number of positive votes as I have negative, plus one for himself.

    He also has almost a clean sweep of the 10 most popular comments.

    Could he have lots of accounts and be skewing the appearance of the forum?

    Perish the thought! LOL.

    Is the BBC going to check?

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.


    "From military victories against all odds"

    Yeah, really true. With all the weapons of USA and Europe, it was really against the odds to win a war with people using out-dated weapons.

    It must have been because of G-d's help?? :D

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    25 Whitefall
    So it is ok for people of Jewish faith to mutilate infant boys and hold their beliefs of being an exclusive chosen race yet people of Islam cant hold their beliefs - I am seeing some double standards and possibly the reason why there are problems in the Middle East

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    Israeli & Palestinian school children are taught very different versions of the lands recent history form an early age.

    They grow up thinking of the other side as the 'agressor' that swiftly develops into full blown hatred.

    Even if both sides stopped teaching their kids to ahte eachother today, it would still take generations to stop the cycle of violence between Israelis & Palestinians.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.


    Thanks. I've studied the history for some 15 years or more and have been there many times. Also had a chance to speak to some of the early pioneers.

    It's a pity that the story of Israel has been hijacked by a revisionist campaign, because it's one of the most remarkable stories. From military victories against all odds, to the building of a nation from scratch

    Very interesting topic.

  • rate this

    Comment number 98.

    This HYS has clearly been hijacked!

  • rate this

    Comment number 97.

    @90 sanbag
    After reading most of the comments here, it is so good to hear from someone who knows history.

    I'm again reminded of Einstein's quote "Great spirits always encounter violent opposition from mediocre minds."

    Next year in Jerusalem.

  • rate this

    Comment number 96.

    Rather a long article to come to a pretty obvious conclusion. And there will be no peace until the US gives up its position of partiality.

  • rate this

    Comment number 95.

    The Hebron massacre refers to the killing of 67 Jews (including 23 college students) on 24 August 1929 in Hebron, then part of Mandatory Palestine, by Arabs incited to violence by false rumours that Jews were massacring Arabs in Jerusalem and seizing control of Muslim holy places
    As we can see, 'palestinian' violence against Jews pre-dates Israel, pre-dates 'occupation' & pre-dates settlements.

  • rate this

    Comment number 94.

    51. sanbag

    European obsession with deriding Israel down to their love of palestinians.

    .. could I ask some our arm chair ..

    Millions of Jews died in Auschwitz & similar.

    You desecrate this by justifying ethnic cleansing & twisting of the truth about peoples who had absolutely nothing to do with this.

    Of all the people who should know different?

    You are little better than Nazi's yourself!

  • rate this

    Comment number 93.

    Sanbag can be next president of israel. People are loving his comments so much that he has 8 out of 10 top comments today. LOL

  • rate this

    Comment number 92.

    Obama is wasting his time. There will never be lasting peace in that region, whatever short term talks go on, because deep-rooted Israeli-Arab and Shia-Sunni suspicions and hatred are too ingrained. We might as well just accept it and stay well clear.

  • rate this

    Comment number 91.


    >it being clearly understood that nothing be done which may prejudice civil & religious rights of existing communities in Palestine, or the rights enjoyed by Jews in other lands.

    it is a noble satment but it makes absolutly no sence when taken with the statment

    >a home for Jewish people

    because it imediatly puts the Jewish people above anyone else there

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    Aug 29th 1929

    A Scottish missionary working in Safed stated: "They came beating drums and breaking the windows of Jewish houses en route. On the afternoon of Thursday the 29th, one of our church members came running to tell us that 'all the Jews were being killed.' Wild Arabs had come up from the valley unexpectedly into the Jewish quarter and began at once a systematic slaughter of the Jews"

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.



    "Note the 15th word onwards, as Israel doesnt!"

    Many Arab countries certainly didn't!


    The refugees no-one ever talks about.

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    #84 . Twit

    Balfour Declaration 1917 is UK's only ‘support' of a Jewish state

    ‘His Majestys govt favour the establishment in Palestine of a home for Jewish people.. it being clearly understood that nothing be done which may prejudice civil & religious rights of existing communities in Palestine, or the rights enjoyed by Jews in other lands.

    Note the 15th word onwards, as Israel doesnt!

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    First documented attacks against Jews/Israelis by 'palestinians' (back then they were simply known as 'Arabs') was on March 1st 1920.

    28 years before the state of Israel.
    47 years before the so-called 'occupation' or 'settlements'

    The first so-called 'settlement' was built in 1967, it was actually the reestablishment of a community that had been ethnically cleansed in 1929 by Arabs.


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