Daoud Kuttab Headshot

The Obama Factor in the Middle East Conflict

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The visit of U.S. President Barack Obama to the Middle East has elevated interest in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict at a time when other regional issues have taken over regional and world interest and should be welcomed.

Having the presidential office interested in this conflict needs a totally different approach to the conflict. Without the presidential involvement, the powerful Israelis have no problem in oppressing the people under their occupation. And perhaps Israelis, who get away with murder when dealing independently with the Palestinians, might find themselves embarrassed when a US president looks over their shoulders.

In general, therefore, the Obama factor is a potentially good thing for peace. The problem is how to make this factor last -- how to create mechanisms that will continue to work even when a U.S. president or his secretary of state are not around.

There is no doubt that the key issue is disengagement. The idea that ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state is in the interest of the U.S. must be constantly repeated and continuously worked on.

Ending the occupation should be the primary goal that needs to be worked on by finding a mechanism the parties cannot wiggle themselves out of.

Naturally, the bulk of the effort needs to be placed on the party that is actually carrying out this unacceptable state of military control over another people. Palestinians must also provide the necessary overtures to reassure Israelis that once the occupation ends, the Israelis can enjoy peace. And finally, the US must use its enormous standing to assure all parties that an end to occupation agreement will be guaranteed by the superpower.

Naturally, the issue of settlements must be tackled head on. There is no justification for the continued illegal acts of taking lands and transferring the population of an occupying regime to occupied areas without such acts destroying any attempts at this needed disengagement.

Suspending settlement activities is not a gesture towards peace, it is a prerequisite for it. And this is not a game.

Israelis have become world-class experts at playing this game. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu ordered his ministers and other officials not to embarrass him during the Obama visit with any "announcement" about new settlements. At the same time, Israel has found the time and perfect location to take down a few outposts, just outside Ramallah, this week, as a sign that they are serious about the issue.

What most people fail to realise is that these outposts, just like all settlements in Palestine, are illegal not only according to international law but also according to Israel's own laws. So taking down homes that the various rightwing Israeli governments were not able to legitimise, while welcomed, is not a real gesture towards Palestinians.

If Palestinians are to be reassured that the independent state they are aspiring to is viable and contiguous, they will need much more serious effort and not just cosmetic acts during the few days a US president happens to be visiting.

Many Palestinians are bracing themselves for a large settlement drive once Obama and his entourage leave. A look at the newly formed government in Israel and the statements some of its key rightwing members have made do not bode well and do not signal an end to this illegal settlement activity.

The White House and senior U.S. officials went out of their way to lower expectations for the president's visit. They said that the president is on a "listening" tour and that he has no specific plans up his sleeves. No one believes that.

After decades of conflict and peacemaking attempts, it is insulting the intellect of the peoples in the region to hear that a US president actually only wants to hear more from the parties. People expect the US president and his team to do what is necessary to create an ironclad mechanism for peace.

Obama must find the way to plant, during this short but important visit, the seeds of a process that will produce an end to the Israeli occupation. Anything short of that goal will mean that his visit has failed one of its main expected goals, regardless of all the pre-visit efforts to lower expectations.