Palestinian Authority looks ahead to second Obama term with weary optimism
Despite the fact that he disappointed them during his first term, Barack Obama back in the White House is better for the Palestinians than his opponent would have been.
Shortly after U.S. President Barack Obama's re-election victory was declared, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas hastened to send a cable of "warm congratulations" to the victor on behalf of both himself and the Palestinian people. Abbas promised he would act with all his might to bring about a permanent status solution in the Middle East and a just peace for both peoples - of Palestine and Israel - who will live side by side in mutual respect, of course.
There are several explanations for the warm congratulatory message, as well as for Abbas' decisiveness and diligence in dispatching it: First of all, had Republican candidate Mitt Romney won the election, presumably the Palestinian issue would have been pushed off the American administration's agenda, and Abbas' already unstable status would have to some extent become even shakier. Indeed, at the end of the day, Obama's victory is good news for the PA, despite the low expectations the Palestine Liberation Organization has of the U.S. president and his administration.
Secondly, Abbas is apprehensive about the conflict with the White House that is expected to arise in light of his plan to submit a request to the United Nations General Assembly on November 29 for Palestine to be granted the status of "non-member observer state" in the world body.
It must be said that Obama's first term in office left a number of deep scars on the PA. The expectations were sky-high: The new American president did not seem to be seeking a close relationship with Israel, but rather with the Arab states, the Palestinians and most of all the Arab public. His speech at Cairo University in June 2009, in the presence of Egyptian opposition elements but without President Hosni Mubarak, gave an impression of a real revolution in American policy. Subsequently, at every opportunity, the Obama administration voiced its strong objections to Israeli settlements in the territories. The United States began to bear down on Israel not just because of the outposts in the Nablus hills, but also because of the construction of housing units in the Jerusalem neighborhoods of Gilo, Ramat Shlomo and elsewhere. To this day Abbas recounts how he has stuck to the policy of "no negotiation as long as there is construction in the settlements," inspired by Obama's remarks and the fact that he took pains to say he would strive for establishment of a Palestinian state, based on the pre-1967 borders, alongside Israel.
However, the impression remaining in the PA, especially among Fatah people, is that Obama not only forgot his commitments to the Palestinians with regard to Israel, but also to his allies Abbas, Mubarak and King Abdullah of Jordan, in the political struggle between the Islamists and secular entities in the Arab world. Top people in the PA - and first and foremost Abbas - were aghast at what was interpreted as Obama's total betrayal of Mubarak, along with his repeated attempts to get closer to the Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas' umbrella organization. In Abbas' bureau, they are certain beyond any doubt that Obama sees the Brotherhood as an ally in the struggle against even more extremist Islam (the Salafists, Al-Qaida and so on ), as well as against the Shi'ites.
Moreover, according to the PA president's people, after Mohammed Morsi's victory in the Egyptian presidential election, the U.S. administration warned the Supreme Military Council not to carry out a putsch, or anything resembling one, and insisted it carry out the transfer of power to the winner without violence.
The awakening from the false hopes from Obama was gradual, taking place largely in light of the administration's flaccid response to Israel's construction in the settlements and its decision not to present a clear plan for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Moreover, Obama's non-appointment of a special envoy to the Middle East after the departure of Dennis Ross constituted a clear signal that during the election year, the president did not intend to invest extraordinary effort in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, mainly due to the fear it would lead to weakened Jewish support for him.
Time after time over the past four years, the PA encountered the power of Congress and its unambiguous support for Israel on nearly every issue, to a large extent thanks to the lobby of Jewish organizations in Washington. Congress was sometimes even more hostile to the PA than the Israel of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Thus, for example, it was of all things the Jewish lobby that tried to convince Republican Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida to release security funds for the PA that had been held back for months. Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, which has the authority to withhold such financial aid, had done just that, apparently as part of her pursuit of the Jewish vote.
And yet, as noted, Obama's victory is better for the PA than seeing Netanyahu's pal Mitt Romney become the new occupant of the White House. Despite the disappointments of the past, there are many expectations of Obama - in fact, even now they may perhaps be unrealistic.
First of all, the PA is hoping Obama and his people will show understanding for Abbas' move to achieve observer status for Palestine in the UN. Top Palestinian officials have explained time and again that their president cannot go back on his decision to do this, mainly because his standing in Palestinian public opinion is becoming ever more shaky. They believe the damage to domestic public opinion caused last week by the interview Abbas gave to Israel TV Channel 2's Udi Segal - during which the PA leader seemed to have backed down on the issue of the Palestinians' right of return - was far greater than any benefit gained from it in the international community or Israel. Rescinding the application to the UN now would make Abbas come across as a particularly weak leader who submits to pressure while the status of Hamas continues to strengthen, as the economic situation in the Gaza Strip does as well.
Meanwhile, in the West Bank, the Palestinians are looking on helplessly at the parade of Arab leaders (as well as other regional leaders expected in the near future, such as Turkey's Recep Tayyip Erdogan ) knocking on Gaza's door in order to bestow some of their wealth upon residents, and in so doing improving their own standing in the realm of Arab public opinion.
For his part, Abbas needs Obama "on his side," and not on the side of Hamas. In addition, the PA leader has already promised that after the Palestinians' status is upgraded in the UN, his authority will agree to return to the negotiating table - without any preconditions. Second, Obama will be asked to reignite the peace process and find a formula that will allow Abbas to reconsider his policy of "no negotiations without a stop to construction," even at the price of conflict with Netanyahu .
For now, the PA is also awaiting the appointment of a new envoy to the Middle East and even, after elections in Israel perhaps, presentation of an American proposal for a peace agreement, a kind of "Obama outline." And what about a new Camp David summit? Well, at this stage, the Palestinians have expectations, not hallucinations.
In the interim, Hamas is sitting around and waiting for the Americans to come courting. The Islamic movement may be suffering from delusions, but nevertheless its members expect that the Obama administration in its second tenure, without the pressure to win the Jewish vote, will take an unprecedented step and establish some kind of relationship with the group.
During this past year the organization cut its ties to Damascus, its relations with Iran have weakened and its outgoing political bureau head Khaled Meshal has already expressed his willingness for a Palestinian state to be created along the lines of the 1967 borders. At the end of the month, the result of the election for Meshal's successor will be announced. The dominant candidate at the moment is Moussa Abu Marzouk, who resides in Cairo, meets with senior statesmen from around the world (most recently Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov ) and in the past lived in the United States for many years. The Obama administration has already entered into an ongoing dialogue with representatives of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, who continue to express enthusiastic support for wiping Israel off the map.
In the eyes of the Palestinian organization, if the Americans are already on speaking terms with the Muslim Brotherhood - can Hamas be far behind?
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