|U.S. President Barack Obama and Israel's Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu walk out of a meeting room to a news conference at the Prime Minister's residence in Jerusalem, March 20, 2013. REUTERS/Larry Downing
JERUSALEM - U.S. President Barack Obama faces a stony reception when he travels to the West Bank on Thursday for talks with Palestinian leaders who accuse him of letting Israel ride rough-shod over their dream of statehood.
Obama has said he will not bring any new initiatives to try to revive long-dormant peace talks and has instead come to Israel and the Palestinian territories for simple consultations.
As a reminder of the ever-present risks in the region, militants in the nearby Palestinian enclave, the Gaza Strip, fired two rockets into southern Israel, damaging the yard of house but causing no injuries, police said.
There were no claim of responsibility and Obama is not going to visit Gaza, which is controlled by the Islamist group Hamas.
Arriving in Israel on Wednesday, the main focus of his initial discussions with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu appeared to be pressing regional concerns, primarily Iran’s nuclear ambitions and the civil war in neighbouring Syria.
After repeated run-ins with Netanyahu during Obama’s first term in office, the mood between the two men appeared to be much warmer, angering Palestinians, who blame the 2010 collapse of U.S.-backed peace negotiations on the Israeli leader’s expansion of Jewish settlements on land where they want their state.
Obama is to address the decades-old conflict in talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and also in a keynote speech just hours later to a large audience of carefully screened Israeli students in Jerusalem.
A senior Israeli official urged Abbas to denounce the early morning Gaza rocket fire. “Last year he consistently refused to condemn such attacks on Israeli civilians,” he said.
After the lofty ambitions of Obama’s first term, when he appointed a special envoy to the Middle East on his very first day in charge and said peacemaking was a priority, it was clear that the president has now set the bar significantly lower.
“I will consider this a success if, when I go back on Friday, I am able to say to myself I have a better understanding of what the constraints are,” he told a joint news conference on Wednesday, standing alongside Netanyahu.
The three-day visit is Obama’s first to Israel and the Israeli-occupied West Bank since entering the White House in 2009, and the inaugural foreign trip of a second and final four-year term that began in January.
Sporadic protests flared in the West Bank and Gaza Strip this week, with Palestinians accusing Obama of not doing enough to halt Israeli settlement-building on land seized in the 1967 Middle East war.
In 2009, Obama bluntly told Israel it had to halt settlement construction, but he later backed away from the demand and made no mention of the issue on Wednesday.
Posters depicting Obama were defaced in the West Bank cities of Ramallah and Bethlehem earlier this week and anti-U.S. sentiment bubbled up on social media.
“Do Not Enter,” said one poster put up on Facebook, showing Obama’s face with a red line crossed through it. “The people of Palestine do not welcome you here.”
In contrast, Obama was feted when he arrived in Israel on Wednesday, with local leaders lining up to praise the U.S. president for his firm commitment to the security of the Jewish state and his pledge not to let Iran develop nuclear weapons.
Netanyahu, while citing what he described as Israel’s right to defend itself, said effusively that he was “absolutely convinced” that Obama was determined to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran. Tehran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.
The Hebrew-language press gave largely positive reviews for Obama, who is distrusted here following perceived missteps in his first term that were viewed as hostile to Israel.
“A bit of informality, a joke or a gentle tease, a few words in Hebrew, and we are immediately filled with great love for the man who looks for a moment as if he likes us,” a columnist wrote in top-selling daily Yedioth Ahronoth.
But the paper added: “Obama is here for one reason, to build up a stock of positive attitude, of trust, for the developments that lie ahead. For if he intends to push Netanyahu into a peace initiative, this will not happen without trust.”
Netanyahu said on Wednesday that he hoped Obama’s visit would help “turn the page” in relations with the Palestinians.
“Israel remains fully committed to peace and to the solution of two states for two peoples. We stretch out our hand in friendship to the Palestinian people,” he added.
Watching from Ramallah, the Palestinian administrative centre just outside Jerusalem, Abbas’s allies accused Netanyahu of repeating empty rhetoric and said Obama showed no inclination to re-engage with an issue that confounded his predecessors.
“The primary purpose of this visit is Israeli security, Israeli-American relations and saying that the U.S. has its back,” said Hanan Ashrawi, a senior official in the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).
Obama will fly by helicopter the few miles from Jerusalem to Ramallah on Thursday morning, giving himself a birds’ eye view of the walls and fences of the separation barrier between the two cities and of Israeli settlements on surrounding hilltops.
Before that, he visited a museum in Jerusalem to see the Dead Sea Scrolls - ancient Jewish parchments discovered in the West Bank in the 1940s.
Israeli diplomats say the trip makes amends for a speech Obama made in Cairo in 2009, when he appeared to argue the Jewish state derived its legitimacy from the Holocaust rather than an attachment to the land dating back to the Bible.
Obama will travel to Bethlehem on Friday to visit the Church of the Nativity, and will also lay a wreath on the grave in Jerusalem of Theodor Herzl, the Zionist visionary who died more than four decades before the 1948 founding of Israel.
The U.S. leader will then fly to neighbouring Jordan, one of only two Arab states that has made peace with Israel.