In Ramallah, Candidate's Visit Leaves Them Unfazed

The guard at Yasser Arafat's tomb in Ramallah yesterday did not know much about this "Barack Obama character" everyone was expecting. In fact, he'd never heard of the man. He remained quite indifferent after his partner explained. Other security personnel did not seem much more enthusiastic.

Ramallahans in general did not seem to have trouble curbing their enthusiasm about the visit by the man who could become the next president of the U.S. within a few months. Some were skeptical about his ability or desire to bring change.

"They are all the same," said Amjad Badran, a shop owner on Manara Square. "The American policy hasn't changed in the last 50 years. All the American presidents have supported Israel. Besides, he won't be elected because he's black. At the end of the day, it's the Senate and the Congress who determine U.S. policy, and they are affected by the Zionist lobby."

Fadi, who owns the shop next door, was less history-oriented in citing his indifference. "Obama won't change anything," he said. "They all come, they talk and then that's all they do. He'll support the Israelis like the ones that came before him."

Obama arrived at the Muqata'a in Ramallah at about 1 P.M. Seventy-five minutes later, he was already en route to Israel. At the capital of the Palestinian Authority, Obama met Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his prime minister, Salam Fayyad.

Generally speaking, the visit in the Muqata'a went rather well, and no one complained about the visit, though some officials at the Muqata'a found it unusual that Obama did not even dine with Abbas. Not surprisingly, the Palestinian Authority officials were very careful in predicting whether Obama would win the election.

"We are conducting our business vis-a-vis the United states with the administration, not only with the presidential [hopeful]," said one of Abbas' aides.

A Palestinian political commentator told Haaretz that in his opinion, Obama's election over McCain's would have little impact on the Palestinian Authority.

"Both Obama and McCain are dependent on Israel." the commentator said. "If the Israeli position is favorable, so will [be] the American one. The authority cares about the Israeli position, not the the American one. Abbas would naturally like more American support and involvement, but ultimately, it's the Israeli side that counts for him."

The commentator added that in the eyes of the Palestinian leadership, Obama's affiliation as the candidate of the Democrat Party might have less significance than some expect.

"Obama is a Democrat, sure," he said, "but the Palestinian Authority's leaders remember that the first U.S. president who stated his commitment to the formation of a Palestinian state was George W. Bush - a Republican."

Another commentator who attended the Muqata'a reception said that while Obama may well change his position on the Middle East, the U.S. policy on the Palestinian issue would not change in many significant ways.

"We may see a new American policy on Iran, and Obama might even increase his involvement in talks between the Palestinians Authority and Israel," the commentator elaborated. "Maybe he will be more understanding toward the Palestinian position. But will he pressure Israel to halt construction in the settlements? I doubt it. Will he talk to Hamas? I doubt that as well."

Obama, the commentator argues, "understands that the Palestinian reality is extremely complex and almost insoluble on the internal level. And so he would have little pretext to demand the Israeli make meaningful concessions. After a few months in office, Obama will come to realize that solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is nearly impossible right now."

Saeb Erikat, a senior member of the Palestinian Authority's negotiation team with Israel, quoted Obama as saying during the meeting that he will not wait "a single minute" before striving to settle the Palestinian-Israeli conflict if he is elected president. The presidential hopeful said he hoped the two sides would work out the main differences by 2009.

Khaled, a taxi driver whose brother is serving a jail sentence in Israel, sounded more pessimistic.

"It's all for naught," he complained. "it's all the same crap. The Jews in Washington are riding the American administration, and through it the Arabs. At least we Palestinians are riding the Jews."