David Miller
The Media Line
May 23, 2011 - 12:00am

Palestinians were left confused and divided over U.S. President Barack Obama after he made two major policy addresses on Israel, the Palestinians and the peace process in the space of four days.

The Obama speeches – one at the State Department largely devoted to broader Middle East issues an a second in front of the pro-Israel American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) left a trail of confusion for policy analysts and political figures, especially over the U.S. leader’s meaning when he called for negotiation a future Palestinian state to be based on “1967 lines.”

"I’m surprised at the Palestinian leaders who welcomed Obama's speech," Hussam Khader, a senior member of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, told The Media Line. "What did Obama offer Palestinians? Absolutely nothing. This speech leaves no inkling of hope for the Palestinian people."

Obama’s remarks come as negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians have stalled and leaders of the Fatah wing of the Palestinian movement are pressing ahead with a drive for unilateral independence. Earlier this month, Fatah and its rival Hamas, the Islamic movement, agreed to end a four-year split. Obama rejected both developments.

Indeed, Palestinian confusion was echoed in Israel, where commentators and political leaders were also divided over whether Obama expressed a hostile stance toward Israel or had simply reiterated America’s long-standing policies. Yediot Ahronot, the country’s biggest newspaper, broke down the component of the State Department address and judged five of is points to be favorable to Israel and five not.

"We didn’t expect the resistance of U.S. President Barak Obama to collapse in record time before the campaign waged against him by Binyamin Netanyahu for Obama's statements on the borders of the independent Palestinian state," read an editorial in the London-based Arab daily Al-Quds Al-Arabi Sunday, titled "Obama's Shameful and Disgraceful Retreat."

Obama delivered his first address last Thursday; calling for the future Palestinian state to be established along the 1967 lines, shorthand for the armistice lines reached in 1949 following Israel's War of Independence. Although he said he backed the idea of land swaps between Israel and the Palestinians, his reference to 1967 provoked an angry reaction from Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

In a second speech three days later in front of AIPAC’s annual convention, Obama softened his 1967 comments, saying that “by definition, it means that the parties themselves – Israelis and Palestinians – will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967” and that “it allows the parties themselves to account for the changes that have taken place over the last 44 years.” By that time, Netanyahu was praising the president.

Khader, the Fatah official, called Obama's AIPAC speech "a new contract with the Jewish Diaspora in order to win another term in the upcoming elections." By rejecting a complete Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and opposing a United Nation resolution recognizing an independent Palestinian state, Obama gave in to Israel's every demand, he asserted.

"How can Obama talk about the Palestinians’ right to a state?" Khader asked rhetorically. "His speech proves that he only wants to provide security to Israel."

But Daoud Kuttab, a Palestinian political analyst, said the U.S. president withstood Israeli pressure to avoid referring to the 1967 borders and even went as far as to repeat his words on the matter at the AIPAC conference, despite the fact that many AIPAC activists are hostile to the idea.

"An agreement on the borders resolves the settlement expansion issue," Kuttab told The Media Line. "Now, the other issues can be solved without the pressure of time."

Kuttab said that if Obama is serious about swapping Israeli settlements beyond the Green Line for territories within Israel, settlement building would be stunted.

"This will deal a long-term blow to Israeli expansion in the West Bank," he said. "There will no longer be one-sided Israeli land theft, because Israel will understand it will have to pay with its own land for every dunam [quarter acre] taken in the West Bank."

Nashat Aqtash, a communications professor at Birzeit University in Ramallah, said Obama's declared support for a two-state solution based on the 1967 borders was a positive development in U.S. foreign policy. But, he added, large segments of Palestinian society were disappointed that the president proposed leaving the sticky issue of refugees to the last stage of negotiations.

"The speech is disappointing to five million Palestinian refugees who were hoping their issue would be resolved soon," Aqtash told The Media Line.

Hamas, for its part, was unequivocal in its condemnation of Obama's speeches. In a press release following the State Department address, the Islamic movement condemned Obama's "blatantly biased stance towards the Zionist occupation … strengthening the policy of ethnic cleansing employed against our people in the occupied Palestinian territories of 1948." Hamas added that the speech only gave credence to its refusal to negotiate with Israel and rely on the U.S.

Following Obama's speech at AIPAC, Hamas official Ismail Radwan said it was clear that the U.S. wasn’t serious about establishing a Palestinian state. He called on Arab leaders to reconsider the Arab Peace Initiative, created by Saudi Arabia in 2002 and endorsed by the Arab League in 2007 -- a comprehensive plan for normalization of ties between Israel and the Arab world.

Mahmoud Al-Zahar, another Gazan Hamas official, ridiculed Obama, saying he had completely changed his position from the first speech to the second.

"It seems as though Obama wrote his speech three days ago with his right hand and his speech today with his left hand," Al-Zahar was recorded saying by Israel Radio on Monday. "When he speaks in an Arab country he speaks one language, and when he addresses this Zionist conference he speaks another."

Egypt, which has hosted reconciliation talks between Palestinian factions Fatah and Hamas, congratulated Obama on his speech in a statement issued by the Foreign Ministry Saturday. It said that Israel's immediate rejection of the speech indicated it was not serious about ending the conflict, wishing only "to buy time."


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