George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News (Opinion)
February 14, 2013 - 1:00am

Under American tutelage, history (almost) repeats itself for both the Palestinians and Israelis. President Barack Obama will be travelling next month to Israel, much like what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did four years ago when he met the American president for the first time during his first weeks at the White House.

However, their Washington get-together was memorable for their sharp exchanges and noted for Obama’s half-baked demand that Israel “freeze” its colony expansion — a position that upset many an Arab for the American leader’s failure to insist that Israel withdraw its illegal colonists, numbering about 500,000, from all the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories. Ever since that inelegant meeting, there has hardly been any movement on resolving the Palestine-Israel conflict, while Israeli expansion into Palestinian territories continued without any serious challenge from any quarter, as had been the case since the 1967 Arab-Israel war.

This time around, however, the American president, after his visit to Israel, will also be meeting the Palestinian National Authority (PNA) President, Mahmoud Abbas, and Jordanian King Abdullah in their respective countries for the first time.

What is now on Obama’s agenda has yet to be officially announced. What has been disappointing about the American president’s stance is his failure to mention Palestine or the Palestinians in his State of the Union address on Tuesday before a joint session of the House of Representatives and the Senate.

However, astonishingly, Israel received a different treatment in his only paragraph that underlined a few Middle East concerns. These lines hardly dealt with any of the key issues of the turbulent region, as Obama said: “In the Middle East, we will stand with citizens as they demand their universal rights, support stable transitions to democracy. The process will be messy and we cannot presume to dictate the course of change in countries like Egypt; but we can — and will — insist on respect for the fundamental rights of all people. We will keep the pressure on a Syrian regime that has murdered its own people and support opposition leaders that respect the rights of every Syrian. And we will stand steadfast with Israel in pursuit of security and a lasting peace. These are the messages I will deliver when I travel to the Middle East next month.”

Obama’s shocking failure to refer directly to a two-state solution for the Palestine-Israel conflict has disappointed, if not shocked, many Arab diplomats in Washington and others in the region. One key point that needs immediate acknowledgement by the Obama administration, according to former Arab League ambassador, Clovis Maqsoud, is the recognition that West Bank, particularly East Jerusalem, is occupied territory before any Palestinian-Israeli talks can be renewed. Maqsoud underlined that in accordance with international law, all colonies in an illegally occupied region should be dismantled, not frozen, as the American president had once proposed.

However, the just-revealed assumption of Secretary of State, John Kerry, may offer a turning point. After a meeting in Washington last Wednesday with the visiting Jordanian Foreign Minister, Nasser Judeh, Kerry said he was an optimist about the Arab-Israeli problem, adding: “If I weren’t an optimist, I wouldn’t have taken this job.” He maintained that the US “is an indispensable entity with respect to that process”. He further said: “The president understands that. And the president is not prepared, at this point in time, to do more than to listen to the parties, which is why he has announced he’s going to Israel. It affords him an opportunity to listen. And I think we start out by listening and get a sense of what the current state of possibilities is and then begin to make some choices.”

He went on: “We are committed, as I’ve said to minister Judeh and to others, to explore every possibility. The window is closing on this possibility. The region knows it. All the leaders I’ve talked to in the region have brought this topic up as a prime topic. And so it deserves our utmost consideration and it will get that.”

Needless to say, this elaboration by the secretary of state is heart-warming, but it remains to be seen whether Netanyahu, who has yet to form a new government, can find the colleagues who are ready to proceed in the light of what Kerry has enunciated. Otherwise, we are back to square one.

George S.Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at


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