Obama's futile Bethlehem tour

On the eve of US president Barack Obama’s visit to Israel and the West Bank, Palestinian activists took a leaf out of the book of Israeli settlers and set up a tent camp on a windswept hilltop outside the Biblical town of Bethany, where Jesus lodged in the days before his crucifixion.

The encampment, located in the area of the West Bank controlled exclusively by Israel, made the point that Israel prevents Palestinian cities, towns and villages from growing while illegal Israeli colonies, like Maale Adumim, a few hilltops distant is free to expand on Palestinian-owned land. But the message was lost on Obama who said he was not bringing a new plan to end the Israeli occupation and expedite the emergence of a Palestinian state in East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and Gaza. When in 2009 after taking office for the first time, he tried to achieve this aim, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu flatly refused to halt colonisation, making it impossible for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to engage in negotiations due to widespread Palestinian opposition as long as Israel continues to build.

Abbas has warned that the window of opportunity for creating a viable Palestinian state is fast closing due to Israeli colonisation of land Palestinians demand for their state.  But, Obama, humiliated by Netanyahu, stopped putting pressure on Israel to halt this drive and has no intention of again assuming the politically risky role of mediator.

Domestic purpose

The primary purpose of Obama’s visit to Israel is domestic: to secure the support of pro-Israel US lawmakers for his legislative programme. Sharply criticised for his deep frozen relationship with Netanyahu, Obama has made a show of friendliness and familiarity, calling the Israeli by his nickname, "Bibi" and projecting false warmth toward a man he cannot stand.

Behind closed doors, Obama made it clear to "Bibi" that the White House and Pentagon continue to oppose an Israeli military attack on Iran's nuclear facilities. Obama cannot count on Israeli cheer-leaders in Congress to express opposition or to restrain Israel in any way. Well aware that this is the case and after obtaining the usual reassurances from Obama over his country's “unprecedented support for Israel's security,” Netanyahu said that Obama had conceded that “Israel must be able to defend itself against any threats”  and that Israel would “never cede the right to defend ourselves to others.”

Clearly, Netanyahu reserves the right to bomb Iran at will in spite of fears that such
action could prompt Iranian retaliation against US interests in West Asia and destabilise an unstable region. For Netanyahu, Obama's trip has been a positive event on a gloomy domestic political front. After losing seats in parliament and earning low approval ratings, Netanyahu required a show of support from Obama to bolster his fragile coalition comprised of competing personalities with contradictory agendas.

The visit has also been an opportunity to demonstrate, once again, to Israelis that the US remains Israel's staunch ally.   However, all their smiles and warm words have not concealed the profound difference between Obama and Netanyahu on Palestine. Netanyahu spoke only about advancing peace between Israel and the Palestinians but made no mention of the "two state solution" while Obama not only recommitted to two states but also held talks with Abbas in Ramallah with the aim of showing that the White House has not abandoned the Palestinians.

Washington cannot afford to do so because Abbas' US-trained security forces continue to protect Israelis from Palestinian suicide bombers and shooters. Abbas' semi-autonomous authority also administers Palestinian urban enclaves, permitting Israel to claim that it does not "rule over another people" while, in fact, it controls every aspect of Palestinian existence.

By making a well publicised pilgrimage to Bethlehem, the birthplace of Jesus where many Palestinian Christians still live, Obama tried to encourage them to remain in their hometown and homeland in spite of Israeli confiscation of their land and restrictions on free movement and commercial activity.

Obama also intended to show solidarity with West Asia's Arab Christians who are under threat from conflict and Muslim fundamentalists in Iraq, Syria, Libya, and Egypt.  More than 50 per cent of Iraqi Christians have fled their country in the decade since Obama's predecessor, George W Bush, invaded that country.

Thousands of Christians have left Syria since unrest erupted two years ago and Egypt's Copts are under greater challenge than ever before from the country's ruling Muslim Brotherhood and its radical Salafi allies.

Obama's Bethlehem tour is an empty gesture because he is not prepared to urge Israel to ease pressure on Palestinian Christians, Iraq to protect its Christians, and Syrian rebels to cease targeting of Christians in the country’s ongoing civil conflict.

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