Personnel shifts in the West Wing, including those who have left to work for the president's reelection or left the administration for good, do not go unnoticed in the West Bank. "He (Obama ) will get off our backs at least until after the elections in 2012," said a settler this week, and asked: "Do you think he might get reelected?"
The Americans are on everyone's lips - the donors who facilitate settlement expansion, bragging about congressional support, the curious visitors who hear in illegal outposts how the Bible supports the claim "this is ours." In Ramallah, the political tensions are felt over what should they give up for American support and financial aid in working out a reconciliation with Hamas.
I last met Sam Bahour, Ohio-born and a Ramallah-based entrepreneur, in the fall of 2002, two years after the second intifada broke out. Checkpoints blocked roads. More than 600 Israelis and 1,600 Palestinians had been killed. But more than half of the Palestinians still said they support terror - and only 30 percent of Israelis were sure their side was winning.
Sam came to Ramallah in 1994 because he believed in the Oslo Accords and "wanted to be a part of it." He had ambitious business plans. He opposed suicide bombers.
These days, there's construction everywhere in Ramallah. Posh homes are going up in the "Diplomatic Compound" on the outskirts. The shopping mall displays a mini dress in Santa Claus colors. In Manarah Square, across from "Stars n' Bucks" (sic) there's a huge white chair with the emblem of the United Nations. Someone pinned on a banner: "Haifa, we are coming back. Palestinian refugee". The same is pinned outside the gates of the Muqata.
These days, Sam says he is "learning to be a Palestinian." For years, he went every three months to Jordan to renew his visa. The final renewal made him apply for a Palestinian ID.
"I used to study at the university in Tel Aviv and go there freely as an American. But the day I got my Palestinian ID, I became a security threat. The Israeli authorities put a stamp in my American passport that I have an Palestinian ID. It means that I have to live like a Palestinian. I can't go to the Israeli airport, only to Jordan through the Allenby Bridge.
His daughter has just applied to MIT, and he wants more Palestinian kids to be able to do so.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas "called Netanyahu's bluff and the UN's bluff," says Sam. "We've been fed with 'two states' for 44 years." Abbas made the first very shrewd move, he says, for recognition - "everything else is up for negotiation."
But the PA's agenda has collapsed. "Would you expect anything different than Hamas' raise?" he asks. "Although I am a very secular Palestinian, and it doesn't make me happy that Hamas won the elections in Gaza."
Israelis, he says, "have this feeling since there's the wall (the separation fence) and no suicide bombers, everything is OK." He says: "The day Hamas believes they are out of the system, suicide bombers will return, even with the wall."
As for the recent controversial laws being debated in Israel, Sam says: "It's good for the Palestinians because it's exposing the real face of the Zionist occupation." He believes the BDS (boycott divestment sanctions ) campaign works.
The boycott calls don't keep him awake at night, says Psagot winery owner Yaakov Berg. "Each time there's a call to boycott our wines, we sell more. Last week, I got an order from the U.S. so big I'm not able to fill it."
Berg says he also recently received 10 members of Congress. "Obama probably doesn't like us (settlers ) anyway, but at least he knows that if he screws us, Congress will make his life tough."
Another argument comes forward in Migron. Itai Harel says it is "still be proved" it was built on privately owned Palestinian land.
The Supreme Court ruled last August that Migron, founded in 2002, is to be dismantled by April 2012. So is it legal to be there?
"Depends how you look at it," Harel says. "The Supreme Court made an evil thing. There is a big game going on here. It was a beautiful, comfortable and empty land. We are not thieves."
Aliyana Pasentin, born in San Francisco into a Conservative Jewish family, made aliya to Herzliya and followed her husband to Eli to a nice house overseeing Shilo. He commutes to work near Tel Aviv, and she works in a local school and guides tours. Family friends were the Fogel family, who were massacred in Itamar. "We teach our kids to respect them (Arabs ), but to suspect them. We believe living here benefits the state of Israel," says Pasentin. Her family in the U.S. do not have the same views "but they were surprised when they visited that things here do not look like they imagined."
Ron Nachman, mayor of Ariel, says: "We have to be clear with the terminology. Let's just call them communities, not settlements."
"We either have rights to this land and act accordingly, or we don't. This is not a temporary place, and I want Thomas Friedman to come here to see that his ideas are not connected to the ground," says Nachman.
His deputy Ludmilla seems upset after hearing about the building boom in Ramallah. "We barely got permits for permanent housing for families from Gush Katif," Ludmilla says. She came here from Russia nine years ago and settled in Ariel. About half of Ariel's residents are from the Former Soviet Union. "My kids are living here. My son is getting married, and there will be another family in Ariel," she says.
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