Updated: March 21, 2013 at 5:30 a.m. EST
Were he a journalist, President Obama could claim he must be doing something right in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Look: both sides are mad at him! But he’s a politician, and the conundrum he faces on both sides of the Green Line fits like a straitjacket.
The skepticism that greets Obama in Israel — where a newspaper poll last week found only 1 in 10 Israelis are “favorable” toward him — is grounded in the very assumption that once raised hopes in the Palestinian territories: that a black American President who came of age in the third world harbored real feelings for their situation. But the height of the hopes only deepened the reservoir of disappointment that awaits him in the West Bank. In Ramallah, where Obama meets Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas on Thursday, posters heralding his arrival were promptly defaced with red X’s (and, as the Associated Press reported on Thursday, Obama was planning to emphasize the importance of reaching an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal, before Palestinian militants in Gaza launched rockets into southern Israel). In Bethlehem, where he will visit the Church of the Nativity on Friday, motorists earlier this week took turns driving over his image on a grubby street.
“I am very disappointed in Obama, since he is the key to our hope,” says Hayil Mansara, 53, a native of Hebron, a city divided between Palestinians and militant Jewish settlers. “Unfortunately the pressure of the Israelis is much stronger and louder. Therefore he is not planning on unlocking any of our rights soon.”
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“I don’t understand,” Mansara goes on. “He is a black man, with roots from Africa. His people suffered from racism, and his family are still in Africa. So why isn’t he interested or willing to help us gain our rights and freedom?”
As Abbas likes to point out, Washington has never pretended to fill the role of impartial mediator in the Palestinian contest with Israel. “The United States is our friend,” he told TIME last year. “But it is Israel’s ally.” Even so, hopes soared in the West Bank and Gaza Strip when Obama was first elected, and the sympathetic tenor of his Cairo address to the Muslim world only heightened expectations. But while the new President succeeded in freezing Israeli settlements in the West Bank for 10 months (an opening that Abbas largely let pass), what Palestinians remember of Obama’s first term was his rigid opposition to U.N. recognition of Palestine as a member state. In the West Bank, Obama’s visit to the region is understood as advertised — as an effort to reach out to Israeli Jews who remain wary of the American President despite what Israeli officials acknowledge has been intensive support for Israel, especially in military and diplomatic realms.
“Four years ago I had hoped that he might bring about a change, return our land, free the prisoners, assure refugees the right to return [to homes inside present-day Israel they left in 1948],” says Aseel Zaid, 18, a community-college student in Qalqilya, a small city near the separation barrier. “But four years have passed and nothing achieved. Things have just gotten worse.”
Palestinians say they are further discouraged by the makeup of the new Israeli government sworn in under Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Though the agreement binding the parties into a governing coalition calls for resuming negotiations with the Palestinian leadership, none of the major parties profess much enthusiasm for the process. Meanwhile, prosettler activists have taken control of ministries crucial to advancing Israeli settlements in the West Bank, the approximately 200 Jewish subdivisions and cities that greatly undermine the possibility of a future Palestinian state.
“He did not stand by us to gain our own state, so what does this tell you about his goals and efforts?” asks Shams Mansour, 24, a truck driver in Qalqilya. “I think this trip is intended only for the Israelis. To show that he is neutral he will visit the occupied Palestinian territories — but only as a tourist.”
In Ramallah, Obama will talk with Abbas, then pay a call to a youth center in the neighboring city of al-Bireh, a municipality known for the expansive homes built by Palestinians who have emigrated to the U.S., done well and sent money back. Dual citizenship tends to make the experience of living under occupation — Israeli troops have controlled the West Bank since 1967 — more poignant.
“When I am living in the U.S. I always feel as though I am free and that my rights are protected like everyone else,” says Ghassan Abed, 43, who owns businesses in New York. “Unfortunately, living now in the town of al-Bireh I must say that I feel no sense of freedom. I am not able to travel to Israel without applying for a permit from the Israelis and then having to wait to be approved or granted the right to enter my people’s confiscated land.”
Mutasem Nabhan was on vacation from Boston, where he owns several businesses. “When I come to visit my family here, I am harassed at the airport despite my U.S. citizenship just because I am a Palestinian,” he tells TIME. “In the U.S., you feel the real meaning of freedom. Just as long as you obeyed and follow all the laws, no one will bother you nor will anyone question why you are going to a certain place.”
And yet, Nabhan expects Obama to “push for peace.” Palestinian leaders like Abbas, having sworn off armed resistance, often say hope is all they have to offer their public, and even in the more discouraging periods — talks have been frozen since 2008 — many grope for optimism. Waseem Shobak, 58, a retired schoolteacher and father of five in Qalqilya, was not about to turn away the U.S. President quite yet. “Till now we have not seen anything positive from him, so we are still hoping that he may be able to bring about a change to our cause,” Shobak says. “Since he is the most powerful man in the world after Allah, maybe my children will be able to find jobs and be able to live normal lives.”
— With reporting by Rami Nazzal / Qalqilya and Ramallah