Tuesday, March 19, 2013

On the Brink: Plenty to discuss as Obama heads to Israel

Jason Reed / Reuters, file
President Barack Obama meets with Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington on March 5, 2012. They are due to meet again on Wednesday.

In the third part of our "On the Brink" series previewing President Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East, NBC News correspondent Martin Fletcher – who has reported from the region for three decades – examines the chances that American pressure will help restart Israeli-Palestinian peace talks.

News analysis

TEL AVIV, Israel - President Barack Obama will spend about seven hours with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday, with one scheduled meeting having turning into three.

He will have a lot to talk about.

Obama will also spend five hours with Palestinian leaders, but have much less to discuss. One item will dominate the agenda – how to form a Palestinian state.

Abed Al Hashlamoun / EPA
A group of Palestinian men protest the closure of the main southwest entrance to Hebron, in the West Bank, on March 8. The entrance was closed by Israeli troops due to its proximity to the Jewish settlement of Beit Hagay.

Palestinians are not holding their breath. Hints of restarting peace talks within a year do not convince young Palestinians who say they want concrete progress, now.

Widespread demonstrations by the young against Obama are expected in the West Bank. Meanwhile in Gaza, which Obama will not visit because it is controlled by militant group Hamas, is expected largely to ignore the American president’s visit.

This strengthens Israel’s claim that it has no partner for peace. What point is there, Netanyahu has asked, in reaching an agreement with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas if he only speaks for half the Palestinians? In fact, Hamas calls Abbas a traitor for even trying to reach an agreement with Israel.

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There also is not much of a chance that Obama will put too much pressure on Israel or the Palestinians. Analysts in both camps believe that Obama’s message will boil down to this – We have tried hard in the past and we got nowhere and got no thanks from anyone. We cannot want peace more than you do. So call when you are ready.
President Obama makes his first trip to Israel where he will meet with Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as well as Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. NBC's Peter Alexander reports.

In the absence of any hope and seeing more and more of their land swallowed up by the Israelis, many Palestinians may well resort to the only tool they think works – violence.

Although Abbas is an enemy of violence and has reportedly ordered his security forces to stop any terrorism against Israel, for months there has been a steady drip of attacks against Israelis, often in response to violence on the part of Israelis. There is more and more talk of a third intifada, or uprising.

Another question hangs over Obama's visit: How serious is Netanyahu when he says he wants peace talks with the Palestinians? One indicator is the carrot he offered Tsippi Livni, head of the small Hatnua party, when persuading her to be the first to sign up with his new government. He put her in charge of peace negotiations.

While she is an avowed proponent of peace talks, it is not clear how much freedom Livni will be allowed to carry out her task. The new government is very inward-looking. It is a cabinet devoted to making serious domestic changes: easing the burden on the middle class, abolishing many of the privileges given to the ultra-orthodox, creating jobs and improving education

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So peace with the Palestinians is likely to be far down the government’s agenda. The two bright young hopes of Israeli politics, Yair Lapid and Naftali Bennett, who have formed a coalition that controls 25 percent of the total seats in the Knesset, do not seem very focused on Palestinian issues.
Bennett, on the right, is against a Palestinian state. Lapid, in the center-left, says the right things but appears, in practice, unwilling to make any of the necessary compromises.
 Thousands of Palestinians - among them masked gunmen - took to the streets of the West Bank for the funeral of a prisoner who died in an Israeli jail. His family says he was tortured while Israel claims it was a heart attack in what threatens to becomes a new uprising. ITV's John Ray reports.

Meanwhile, with little changing in their favor, Palestinians show signs of growing desperation. While some are leaning toward violence, it is unlikely a new intifada would further their aims of statehood. Declaring a state in the U.N. achieved little on the ground, and the ongoing divide between Hamas and Abbas' continues to weaken the Palestinian cause. Finally, in the absence of any real resistance, Palestinians say, Israel takes more of their land.

Their only hope is international pressure on Israel. But there is a deep feeling that if the United States does not join such pressure, it will have little hope of having any effect on the Israeli government.

Martin Fletcher is the author of “Walking Israel.”


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