Fence-mending, lowered expectations as Obama heads to Israel

The U.S. president jets in Wednesday for a two-day visit to Israel and the West Bank. But while the posters and flags are out in number, neither Israelis nor especially Palestinians are expecting much from the Obama visit, Derek Stoffel reports.

U.S. President arrives Wednesday for first official visit

A Palestinian man holds shoes, a symbol of disrespect, and a placard of U.S. President Barack Obama during a protest in the West Bank city of Ramallah earlier today. (Ammar Awad / Reuters)

The Stars and Stripes now adorn nearly every lamp pole in the historic city of Jerusalem. And the red carpet has already been laid out at the airport in Tel Aviv, to welcome Barack Obama on Wednesday, as he makes his first visit to Israel and the West Bank since becoming U.S. president over four years ago.

Besides the flags, the Israeli hosts have even come up with a special logo for the visit, which they've dubbed Unbreakable Alliance.

Still, Obama and his officials know that he's viewed by many Israelis and their leaders as one of the least sympathetic American presidents in recent history. The presidential delegation will also make two brief trips to the Israeli-occupied West Bank, where many Palestinians view Obama with even more disdain.

Expect a mix of dignitaries and demonstrations when the visit begins on Wednesday — 48 hours in which every stop has been carefully planned and in which security, in a country used to seeing soldiers on the streets, has been ratcheted up even a few more notches.

Both the war in Syria and Iran's nuclear ambitions will be high on the agenda when Obama meets Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. But the big issue — the difficult issue — is the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

It's now been more than two years since the two sides sat down together to discuss peace, and the lack of progress has led to a lot of hard feelings from both Israelis and Palestinians.

Obama "is not welcome here," says Leila al-Wadi, the owner of a textiles shop in the Old City market in Hebron, in the West Bank. "He doesn't care about us. What does he do for us Palestinians?"

Like many Palestinians, al-Wadi feels Obama blindly sides with the Israelis, and she is not expecting anything to change because of this visit.

Talk to Israelis, however, and few would consider the U.S. president a friend.

"There's always been some mind of mistrust I think between Israel and Obama," said Zev Stub, who was born in Chicago but now lives in Jerusalem. "A lot of people don't love him."

Lowering expectations

According to the White House, Obama is not coming here with a peace proposal in his back pocket.

Israeli schoolchildren, waving both U.S. and Israeli flags, rehearse greeting the U.S. president during a trial run earlier this week. (Baz Ratner / Reuters)

Instead, this is a visit in which the president will meet both Israeli and Palestinian leaders — and listen. He will visit Israel's Holocaust memorial at YadVashem and the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem.

The itinerary — seen in context with the upheaval in the Middle East after the Arab Spring and the American disengagement in the region as a result — has some presidential critics saying this visit is little more than a sightseeing trip.

Still, it is certainly a chance for the president to mend fences with Prime Minister Netanyahu, with whom relations are said to be as low as the Dead Sea. They only became saltier after Netanyahu was felt to be openly campaigning for Obama's rival Mitt Romney last year.

Since then, both men have been re-elected. Obama no longer has to worry about winning another term, and that has led some commentators to believe that he, and his new secretary of state, John Kerry, will make Middle East peace a priority.

Netanyahu's party, on the other hand, was weakened in January's election. But he still managed to assemble a hawkish coalition government that does not appear to be in a rush for an agreement with the Palestinians.

On Monday, Netanyahu told the Knesset that he was ready for a "historic compromise" with the Palestinians. But the sentiment was quickly followed by the long-standing caveat that he would need a "willing partner" on the other side in order to follow through.

As a result, there are few people here who believe much will have changed when Obama boards Air Force One on Friday, for a quick trip to neighbouring Jordan. And that includes the Palestinian leadership.

"The worst thing in the world would be if he [Obama] would just ask us to go back to the negotiating table. Period," Nabil Shaath told me in Ramallah.

A senior adviser to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, Shaath dismissed any new effort where the Palestinians would simply "discuss with the Israelis land for peace while they steal our land, piece by piece."

About half a million Israelis live in settlements on the West Bank and East Jerusalem, on land the Palestinians want for an independent state.

These communities are considered illegal under international law, though Israel rejects that interpretation.

Two-state, one-state?

There are rumblings here that the Obama visit may yield a partial halt to new settlement construction, in exchange for a Palestinian commitment not to take legal action against Israel at the International Criminal Court in The Hague (one of the rights the Palestinians won when granted non-member observer status at the UN last year).

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has only just cobbled together a governing coalition in the last few days, following elections in January. (Reuters)

But some Israelis are nonetheless wondering why the Americans chose to visit now. The new Israeli government will have only been in power for a few days by the time Obama arrives.

"He's not coming to move anything ahead right now, says Reuven Hazan, a professor of political science at Jerusalem's Hebrew University. "If this is just public relations, then it's very mediocre and poor public relations.

"I think Obama's advisers have told him to come at the wrong time."

Perhaps, though, Obama's visit is meant to shore up support for the two-state solution, the one that would see a mainly Jewish state exist alongside a mainly Arab one.

Prime Minister Netanyahu says he supports the two-state plan, but has done little to back his words with action. The one-state idea — where Jews and Arabs live together in a single country — is increasingly talked about here, which worries many Palestinians as well as Israelis, who see themselves becoming a demographic minority in that situation in the not-too-distant future.

For some, however, there are less lofty expectations surrounding the Obama visit. All William Ghattas wants, for example, is a photo with the U.S. president.

A Palestinian, Ghattas helps run the Catholic side of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, which Obama is expected to visit on Friday.

On a recent visit to the Church, Ghattas proudly showed off a 2002 photograph showing himself and president George W. Bush.

"Hopefully I will again have the honour of having a photo with the leader of the world," he said.

When I asked him if Obama's visit will advance the peace process, he smiled. "These are holy sites. A visit to a sacred site might bring a miracle," he said, gazing around a church filled with tourists. "And a miracle is needed now."