BETHLEHEM, West Bank — President Obama, whose visit to Israel begins Wednesday, is scheduled to travel to this Palestinian city during his trip, but there is little anticipation and much skepticism in the air.
Previous American presidents have come and gone, people say, and nothing has changed. Israel’s occupation of the West Bank has deepened, its settlements have expanded, and there is no sign on the horizon of a political solution that will bring Palestinians independence.
“We’ve reached the point of frustration,” said Osama Darwish, a lawyer, expressing the preemptive disappointment ahead of the president’s visit here Friday, which will include a tour of the Church of the Nativity, traditionally held to be the birthplace of Jesus.
“Obama failed to create an opportunity for peace in his first term, and I don’t think his visit will bring progress toward a fundamental solution of the Palestinian problem,” Darwish said. “It’s more of a sightseeing trip.”
Although Obama will meet with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah on Thursday, Palestinians are keenly aware that the focus of the U.S. president’s trip is Israel, where he will spend most of his time, and they have adjusted their expectations accordingly.
Statements by U.S. officials that the president will be in listening mode and will not be presenting a peace plan have further dampened Palestinian hopes that his visit will improve prospects for a resumption of peace negotiations, which have stalled in a dispute over Israeli settlement building in the West Bank.
“We understand that this is a preliminary visit, that he needs to at least demonstrate his interest in pursuing peace here,” said Nabil Shaath, a senior aide to Abbas. “In deference to him, we are trying to welcome him with a minimum amount of problems, and we are trying to really wait and see without too much expectation.”
“What happens when he goes back, this is the test,” Shaath added.
Palestinian officials say that without vigorous U.S. diplomatic follow-up, there is little chance that Obama’s outreach to Israelis and discussions with the Palestinians will produce substantive new peace talks. Still, there is appreciation for the signal of renewed U.S. engagement.
“The mere fact that President Obama in his second term decided to visit us before anybody else is a reflection of his commitment to the two-state solution,” said Saeb Erekat, the Palestinians’ chief negotiator. “But it’s really up to us and the Israelis to decide, and the Americans are not going to force-feed us.”
The Palestinians have said they will not resume talks with Israel unless it stops building settlements in the West Bank and East Jerusalem, on land the Palestinians seek for a future state. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose newly installed government includes strong backers of the settlement enterprise, has called for a resumption of talks without preconditions.
While U.S. officials and Israeli commentators have stressed the importance of Obama’s planned address to the Israeli people as a way to build trust necessary for a push for peace, a Palestinian spokesman criticized what he said was an imbalance in the president’s itinerary.
Speaking to reporters in Ramallah on Tuesday, Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian lawmaker and member of the Palestine Liberation Organization’s central council, said Obama was showing “unequal treatment of Palestinians” because he planned to avoid the tomb of Yasser Arafat, the Palestinian leader, during his visit to the presidential compound in Ramallah. The site is often visited by arriving dignitaries.
Barghouti noted Obama’s plans to visit the Jerusalem graves of Theodor Herzl, the founder of Zionism, and Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995. “Whether he agrees or disagrees with President Arafat, President Arafat is a symbol of the Palestinian people,” Barghouti said. “We don’t think this is a good gesture.”
He added that Obama had also declined to meet the daughter of a Palestinian prisoner held by Israel, and he criticized the president’s plans to view the Dead Sea Scrolls at the Israel Museum, which he called “stolen materials.” The scrolls, containing ancient biblical texts, were discovered in caves at Qumran in the West Bank in the 1940s and ’50s.
Abbas and officials close to him have avoided such public criticism, echoed in a smattering of protests by Palestinian activists opposed to U.S. policies. In an interview last week with Russia Today television, Abbas characterized Obama’s trip to the West Bank as “a full-fledged, official visit, just like his visits to Israel and Jordan.”
In his furniture shop in downtown Bethlehem, Mahmoud Abu Srur said he hoped that this time the presidential visit would produce results, bringing not only movement toward peace but economic relief for the Palestinian Authority — a more pressing concern for many Palestinians.
Teachers, police officers and other employees have not been paid salaries recently because of a shortfall of aid from foreign donors, and Abu Srur said business was slow.
“God willing, something will be achieved,” Abu Srur said. “So far, it’s been all talk.”