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

Could Aleppo plan cut Syrian bloodshed?

Could a UN plan to freeze hostilities in the embattled city of Aleppo really be a fruitful first step towards reducing violence in Syria, asks the BBC's Lyse Doucet

Read full article


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 186.

    182 All land siezed during the 67 war is illegally occupied, so yet again your statement is inaccurate. The land does not belong to Israel, despite what the yanks say. And as the once great US of A descends into it's bankruptcy, and the Chinese rule the world, then Israel has the choice of moving off it now, or be thrown off it in the future, with major loss of life.

  • rate this

    Comment number 185.

    177 Whether it is OK or not is irrelevant. The fact is it does happen and nations are just as guilty of it as are militants. What do you think HItler used to gain so much support? Maybe reparations from the previous war combined with powerful speaking? (1 example)

    Israel has what they want more than anything: statehood. History repeats itself and so nothing will change without a lot of effort.

  • rate this

    Comment number 184.

    @178 Dave-Edinburgh
    My comment at 181 was written just for you!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 183.

    There is unlikely to be a two state solution so as neither side is willing to compromise they should all be forced to live in a one state solution in alternate houses Arab/Jew all the way along each road. If that doesn't scare them into compromise nothing will.

  • rate this

    Comment number 182.

    ref #170 and 172 . There is an opportunity for the Israeli's to return to 67 borders, the palestinians to have their own country on the west bank and gazza. This could be underwritten,
    Very generous for you to take land that legally is Israel and give it to Jordanians and Egyptians.

  • Comment number 181.

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

  • Comment number 180.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 179.



    Yes, the murder of Sergeants Martin and Paice was utterly shameful and inexcusable.

  • Comment number 178.

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

  • rate this

    Comment number 177.

    @176 Swing Lowe
    Sorry, the world doesn't work that way. One day (9/11) and look at what happened there and what has transpired since. Most of you would change your minds, if destiny had a look in your direction.

  • rate this

    Comment number 176.

    America & Europe should leave Israel to their self made neighbourly disputes in the Middle East. We spend time & resources in this climate of austerity on a situation which has been self perpetuated by both sides and we should leave them to it
    Countries must cooperate with their neighbours and it seem to be in Israel's interest to perpetuate the troubles to maintain trade & support from the West.

  • rate this

    Comment number 175.

    174 Maybee you should go back there since you love it so much. Then again, defenders of Israeli murder of British Soldiers should be Israeli. They cant be British, because then they would be traitors to their country, and should be put against a wall and shot for treason. We were part of the problem, we should hunted down Begin, Shamir, and Lehi, and publicly executed them as a warning to others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 174.



    As much as I love Vegas, I prefer Jerusalem.

    Their trams can actually carry passengers!

  • rate this

    Comment number 173.

    Well there's a problem.

    The side that has won a series of Marginal Strategic Victories doesn't want a Diplomatic Solution, and the side that ha consistently failed to receive success on the Battlefield want's the issue arbitrated, as long as the ruling is in it's favour.

    I've known toddlers debate more intelligently.

  • rate this

    Comment number 172.

    170 I agree . There is an opportunity for the Israeli's to return to 67 borders, the palestinians to have their own country on the west bank and gazza. This could be underwritten, militarily, by Nato and the Americans, so that neither country wastes its resources on huge military spending. Afraid your correct though, this wont happen, as the Israeli's, at present, have no interest in a just peace.

  • rate this

    Comment number 171.

    May 1948...As the British withdraw, the armies of Egypt, Transjordan, Syria, Lebanon, & Iraq begin their invasion. Saudi Arabia sends a formation to fight under Egyptian command.

    The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem tells the Palestinians to leave their homes as those who remain will be thought of as Jews, and their blood too will flow to the Mediterranean making it the 2nd Red Sea.

    And so it goes.

  • rate this

    Comment number 170.

    Great comment to the Israelis by Obama:

    "Just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land,"

    Lets see if the Israelis can offer anything to help the Palestinians achieve this - judging by the pro Israeli comments I doubt they will ever be able to 'put down their guns'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 169.

    Simple solution to it all. As I said earlier, and it was removed, move all of Israel to Nevada. That will solve half the worlds problems in one go. Then the Israeli's will be surrounded by people that love them. That may change however, when the Israeli's decide to take over Las Vegas, kick out the americans, killing some, then proclaim that " God promised this land to them" Reasonable way out

  • rate this

    Comment number 168.


    There is good reason why Arabs fled, as these witnesses explain.


  • rate this

    Comment number 167.

    165 True, but maybee you should remember that, the exact same, and worse happened to the arabs in what was then Palestine. The reason the Israeli's wont let them return to their home, is that the Jews would then be a minority in the country, that tells you eveything about the genocide that happened. There is a solution, for the Israeli's to stay within 67 borders, and the rest to be palestine.


Page 2 of 11



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.