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Obama’s visit to Israel and the West Bank has been labelled as an opportunity by some. Indeed, it is an opportunity- and it’s likely to be one that will be deliberately skirted by the administration, in a bid to ensure that Israeli Premier Benjamin Netanyahu does a better job of concealing his unbridled love for the Republican candidate during the next US election. Obama’s aids already deliberately played down the visit, saying that the President has no intention of bringing a new peace initiative with him.
The visit is therefore likely to present a difficult balancing act for Obama, in that he has to visit one of the most sensitive areas of the world and try not to offend anyone. However, it presents a bigger problem for journalists, whose entire week will be taken up covering the big news story that is trying not to generate any actual news. Moreover, the visit presents an opportunity for the Israeli and Palestinian administrations to use it as a tool to distract from other on-going problems within their own countries.
Israeli citizens have just elected a coalition in the hope that fresh faces from the Yesh Atid (There is a Future) party would provide a “middle way”, preventing a hard-right government. Except the process of coalition building has trampled what little of this idea was realisable, with ministers such as the newly elected Deputy Minister of Defence Danny Dayon and MK for Housing Uri Ariel lining up earlier this week to declare that Israeli settlement policy will continue exactly as it did under the previous government. Settler leader Gershon Mesika, speaking to the Israeli news site Ynet, labelled the new coalition “a wet dream”. Dayon even went as far as to say he intends to encourage a growth in the Jewish population in areas in Israel’s far northern and southern areas, which normally house vast numbers of Israel’s Palestinian, Druze or migrants from Africa, from places such as Eritrea.
Moreover, there is the post-coalition resurrection of “Basic Law”, originally crafted as a private members bill by Kadima MK Avi Dichter in August 2011. “Basic Law” is essentially designed to give supremacy to the idea of Israel as a Jewish, rather than democratic, state. It would strike Arabic from the list of official languages and allow “the state [to] invest resources in promoting Jewish settlement but would not commit itself to building for other national groups” according to a Ha’aretz article published on the 15th March. The idea, which would present increased challenges to minorities within Israel, has seen the light of political day once again due to the allegiance between Netanyahu’s Likud party, and the right-wing Jewish Home party. Were Obama’s visit not happening, it is entirely possible that the media would be tearing open the potential affects of this coalition. Yet while Obama arrives to congratulate Netanyahu on having formed a new coalition, he is essentially rubber-stamping his quiet approval on a government that deliberately and openly states it intends to make life within Israel-held territory as difficult for non-Jews as possible.
Then there is the situation in the West Bank. Before he has even set foot in Ramallah, Obama’s visit added fuel to the fire in the on-going split between Hamas and Fatah, where Hamas accused Fatah of “trading unity in return for an American smile”. Unity is not beneficial to relations between the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority and America, who view Hamas as a terrorist organisation: ignoring the fact that perhaps the only way to unseat them may be through some kind of unity deal, which would put pressure on the Hamas leadership to actually hold the elections that both parties have been dragging their feet over for some years. It’s this kind of short-term-only thinking that proves beneficial to Hamas in the long run, and allows the United States to continue its life-support of the Palestinian Authority, who are sinking in popularity in the West Bank with every passing day.
Beyond the political machinations, there are a number of problems that Obama’s visit will deliberately and carefully skirt. A recent build-up of tension in the West Bank surrounded the fates of several long-term hunger strikers held in Israeli prisons. The hunger strikers have been protesting their re-arrest following the Gilad Shalit prisoners swap, and the use of administrative detention, which permits incarceration without the charges being made public. 40 percent of the total male population have been imprisoned by Israel at some point in their lives, which means that the prisoner issue touches at the heart of the Palestinian population, and this anger recently peaked to the point that some wondered if it heralded the start of a Third Intifada. It would be considered staggering if Obama even made casual mention of this issue.
Judging by the extensive security preparations, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas seems intent on using Obama’s visit to concretise himself as a statesman befitting of the (non-US backed) upgrade in status at the United Nations that happened in November. Yet Obama’s visit to the West Bank is designed to prop up a leadership that is watching its relevance crumble around it. A World Bank report released last week showed that the Palestinian economy has been in decline since 1994- conveniently following the signing of the first Oslo Accords in 1993. Mahmoud Abbas may have openly stated his dedication to suppressing protests about prisoners that the Israelis feared could lead to another Intifada, but it’s questionable whether he would be able to hold back the wave of protests that could occur if the divisions between rich and poor really begin to bite. Nonetheless, that doesn’t mean the PA wouldn’t try: when protestors watched the PA security forces assault demonstrators in Hebron recently, no one commented that they were surprised that the PA is willing to stamp on its own population to preserve its own power via the status quo. As Jillian C. York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation eloquently profiled on Al Jazeera Online on the 14th February, Abbas has also been known to incarcerate Palestinians for doing something as minor as posting a mildly derogatory comment about him on Facebook. Essentially, the US and Israel need the PA, but this is more in hope than an expectation that this messy geopolitical model will actually continue to function.
Finally, there are certain over-arching problems that Obama’s visit will have to ignore in order for the trip to pass without incident. Perhaps chief among these will be ignored on Friday, which marks International Water Day- an issue that is particularly pertinent to every area of desertified land that Obama will set foot on throughout his trip. The politics of water distribution hit the West Bank hardest, where according to the NGO EWASH, “marginalized communities in the West Bank survive on less than 20 litres per capita a day, the minimum amount recommended by the WHO in emergency situations to sustain life” and the average Israeli consumes at least four times as much water per day as the average Palestinian. In Jordan, where Obama will visit before flying back to America, long-term problems of drought are on the verge of crippling the country, exacerbating the strain of an influx of around 400,000 Syrian refugees.
There are some issues on the table for Obama’s visit that undoubtedly require focus, such as the continued crisis in Syria- and there is no doubt that the President may be the only block to Israel enacting a unilateral strike on Iran. Yet overall, his visit in an opportunity to pull focus from long-term problems, something that is as much the fault of the news media itself as it is of the governments in question.
Weight is being given to hard news events in the hope that something might happen, rather than with the expectation that Obama visiting Mount Herzl or a youth club near Ramallah will actually cause him to say something relevant to the local population. Simply put: the right questions are not being asked. The biggest question being: why come here in the first place having openly stated your intention to do nothing?
Ruth Michaelson is a journalist living and working in the Middle East. She has been published by Index on Censorship, Vice, The New Statesman and Reality Check among others. She’d like it if you followed her on Twitter @_Ms_R