Sunday March 3, 2013 12:19 PM (EST+7)
OP-ED: Obama’s visit to mark crossroads
By GHASSAN KHATIB
Read more: demonstrations, protests, stability, intifada, unrest, US policy, US foreign policy, Barack Obama, Mahmoud Abbas, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israeli elections, settlements, Yair Lapid, Naftali Bennett
There are numerous reasons to be worried about stability in the West Bank, especially with the increasing signs of frustration and anger among Palestinians visible in protests against the Israeli occupation, rising support for violence, and expanding demonstrations and strikes against the Palestinian Authority. This means that the March 20 visit of US President Barack Obama to the region comes at a critical time.
The most recent and pressing source of anger among Palestinians is the economic crisis and resulting financial crunch, which are leading to substantial increases in unemployment, highest among those ages 19-29. In parallel, this last year witnessed a dramatic increase in provocative settler violence against Palestinian villagers and in East Jerusalem. This seems to be aimed at provoking a violent Palestinian response. And Palestinians are suspicious of this phenomenon because none of these settler perpetrators have been convicted, despite crimes such as the torching of thousands of olive trees, vandalizing of cars and 12 mosques, and physical attacks--some deadly--on individuals.
The effect of these events is magnified by the combination of a complete absence of any political horizon and the continued and accelerated expansion of settlements in different parts of the West Bank, but especially occupied East Jerusalem and the Jordan Valley. At the same time, Palestinians are feeling abandoned both by Arab governments, which are distracted and preoccupied with the dramatic developments in Arab countries and are also not fulfilling their financial commitments, and the United States, which completely dropped involvement in the conflict and has frozen Palestinian financial support for the last two years.
This gloomy atmosphere and the comparison made between the helpless and pathetic condition of the Palestinian Authority which advocates a diplomatic approach to dealing with Israel and Hamas’ belligerent approach (especially during the last conflagration in Gaza when Israel failed to fulfill its objectives by force) seem to be leading to a reversal of a clear trend in declining public support for armed struggle. The last public opinion poll from the Jerusalem Media and Communications Centre showed an increase of support for “military operations” from 25.2% in November 2012 to 32.6% in a December 2012 poll. A recent study by the JMCC showed that such support was in November 2012 at its lowest since April 1997, and the rise since is at least a temporary reversal.
Many international players, especially the United States, were waiting for the results of the Israeli election. But the new emerging parties of Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, who seemed to be giving Benjamin Netanyahu a hard time because of their relatively central position on internal social issues in Israel, are proving to be as right wing as Likud leader Netanyahu on political issues and peace process requirements. Lapid recently described the kind of state that he might be willing to give Palestinians as a “semi-state”.
Some people in the region, especially Palestinian officials, are laying their hopes on the first presidential visit of Barack Obama to Israel and Palestine. Their argument is that Obama wouldn’t have decided to come unless he had something important to do or say, especially after being relieved of the burden of elections and now enjoying his second and final term. Moreover, reports by American diplomats, international media and statements by Palestinian officials are lending a feeling of urgency to the very critical situation within Palestinian society, given the failure of the reconciliation efforts and the growing legitimacy problem faced by the Palestinian Authority because of its inability to conduct elections.
For all these reasons, this visit of US President Obama will mark a crossroads. Either it will diffuse some of the growing tension with measures that affect both the practical day-to-day lives of the Palestinians and the political arena, or it will fail. If then Netanyahu is given a free hand for another four years in the West Bank, two casualties should be expected. The first is the closure of the historic window of opportunity for the two-state solution and the second is the fall of the historic moderate leadership in Palestine.