By Ira Sharkansky
Letter from Israel 

Obama, Israel, and Palestine


We did not intend to flee Jerusalem when the great man arrived, but we saw no reason to change our plans when we heard about his trip. On the basis of previous presidential visits, we knew that the city would be dysfunctional.

Our visit to Greece provided insights into the functioning of empires, even if it kept us away from the flood of interpretations about what Obama said and did not say

None the less, it is possible to conclude from a number of sources about as much as it is possible to know at this point.

At least to some extent, the president succeeded in his mission to reach out to the Israeli public. No one should think in terms of a love feast, but polls show an increase in favorable sentiments and a decline in those seeing him as primarily pro-Palestinian.

He did not do well with the Palestinians. There were demonstrations before and during his visits to Bethlehem and Ramallah. The most prominent expression against him during his major speech to Israeli students was that of an Israeli Arab.

It wasn’t clever of whoever decided not to invite students to his major speech from Ariel University in the West Bank. Someone in the White House continues with the silliness that Jewish settlements are at the heart of whatever is wrong with the Middle East.

Several commentators perceive from Obama’s comments, hints, and silences that he—and/or his advisers—perceive that Palestinians’ rejectionism, or sharp splits in the Palestinian polity are at least as problematic for the two-state vision as anything due to Israeli intransigence.

Amira Hass is a correspondent for Ha’aretz who defines the outer reaches of the Israeli left. She used to write from Gaza, then even she felt it necessary to move to Ramallah for reasons of security. Usually she writes about the suffering of Palestinians due to what she sees as Israel’s excessive concerns for defense, or the insensitivity of soldiers. This week, however, she wrote about the contrast between Palestinian dreams of independence and the reality of their dependence on Israel and the United States. Both control much of the Palestinians’ income, and have shown a willingness to punish with delayed payments whenever the Palestinian leadership reaches too far beyond Israeli or American tolerance.  There are also problems with the donations promised from European and Arab sources. Deliveries are chronically short of commitments.

Hass describes a situation where the greater portion of Palestine’s budget goes for “security,” and much smaller portions to education and health. Assuming that the published budgets approach reality, those figures suggest that much of the Palestinians’ efforts are directed at keeping order amidst a restive population, and explain why the Palestinians look at their government with even more cynicism than Israelis look at theirs.

The anger of the Palestinians toward Obama, apparently because he has not done enough for them, together with more than 70,000 dead Syrians and several hundred thousand refugees suffering greatly and putting pressure on Turkey and Jordan, plus whatever is happening in Egypt indicates that Obama didn’t get anything from that Cairo speech of 2009 except a misplaced Nobel Peace Prize.

It is not surprising that Americans are inward looking and choose their leaders on looks, good speeches, and what they promise to do at home. However, the role of the US in the world allows its ignorance to do a great deal of damage.

Barack Obama may be brighter and more sensitive than most of his recent predecessors, but his learning curve has been at the expense of people no less human than Americans. 

The mantra of a two-state solution lives. Americans, Europeans, as well as the Jewish and Israeli left see no other possibility except for the fantasy of a one-state solution that will somehow overcome Israeli sentiments, every expression heard from Israeli prime ministers, and the IDF.

Perhaps the Palestinians deserve a state, despite their political in incompetence. America has 50. They can offer Arkansas or South Dakota to the Palestinians without losing much of the national treasure. That won’t satisfy all of the world’s needs. There will remain demands from dissatisfied e Luo, Basques, Catalans, Scots, Welch, French Canadians, and God knows how many others. Yet political correctness should be paid for by those who cleave to it. Why should Israel pay for the dreams of Americans, Europeans, and Arabs who want someone else to help the Palestinians?

It’s also clear that neither Arkansas nor South Dakota will satisfy the Palestinians. They want Israel. I don’t know about Amira Hass, but I’m pretty sure that most of the Israeli left will decline the opportunity to serve the Palestinians by moving back to Grandpa’s home in Lodz, Kishinev, Benghazi, Baghdad, Saana, or Fall River.

It is too early to expect any tangible effects of the presidential visit. It came just before Passover, which is one of the occasions when Israel goes on vacation. Parks, tourist sites, hotels, and bed and breakfasts in Jerusalem and the Galilee have been full. The media has dealt more with traffic accidents and other holiday tragedies than anything political. It will be a few more days until serious business begins, and even then only the optimists should be hopeful.

Ira Sharkansky is professor emeritus, Department of Political Science, Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He may be reached at


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