Tensions Threaten To Complicate Obama’s Middle East Listening Tour

President's Trip Comes Amid Political and Social Unrest

Trading Places: Benjamin Netanyahu’s own political situation may change the nature of the American president’s upcoming trip.
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Trading Places: Benjamin Netanyahu’s own political situation may change the nature of the American president’s upcoming trip.

By Nathan Guttman and Nathan Jeffay

Published March 01, 2013, issue of March 08, 2013.
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Tensions ratcheted even higher, reaching a level not seen since the days of the last intifada, in 2000, when Arafat Jaradat, a 30-year-old Palestinian inmate arrested on February 18, died six days later in an Israeli prison. Israeli authorities say the cause of his death remains undetermined despite an autopsy conducted on his body by Israeli pathologists. Palestinian officials point to the autopsy’s findings of bodily bruises and two broken ribs as evidence that he was tortured.

Husam Zomlot, a senior official in the Palestinian Authority’s ruling Fatah faction, told the Forward that he believes the unrest in the West Bank “should help, and it should affect the agenda for the visit, taking it from something ceremonial to something that could look at the real issues.”

Ramallah-based Zomlot, who is deputy commissioner of Fatah’s International Relations Commission, claimed that recent actions by Israel have created a situation “on the edge of explosion.” He cited in particular numerous detentions of Palestinians without trial, Israel’s re-arrest of some prisoners it released in the October 2011 deal that freed Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit and the detention and unexplained death of Jaradat.

In fact, many Palestinians believe that a backdrop of unrest will focus the presidential visit on Israeli-Palestinian peace. But widespread speculation among Israelis that the unrest has been orchestrated for this reason is being met with disdain.

The idea is “extremely cynical,” P.A. spokeswoman Nour Odeh said. “Palestinians don’t use their lives as a way to promote their cause.”

Odeh said the unrest is spontaneous. She insisted: “Nobody is interested in an escalation on the Palestinian side. That’s certainly not in the best interests of our people and certainly not the policy of our president or leadership.”

Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat visited Washington in February to discuss the upcoming presidential visit with administration officials. Expectations on the Palestinian side run high, although officials in touch with the administration heard the term “listening tour” time and again from American officials describing Obama’s trip.

Ghaith al-Omari, executive director of the American Task Force on Palestine, said the administration was “keeping a close eye” on the situation in the West Bank, but he did not expect the White House to cancel or change the trip plans. “I doubt he will get into any specifics,” al-Omari said about Obama’s scheduled talks in Jerusalem and in Ramallah. Still, he noted that Obama could do a great service if he’d “express his commitment to the peace process, to the Palestinian Authority and to continuing U.S. aid to the Palestinians.”


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