The Blog

Obama's Big Trip: Israel, Palestine and the Audacity of Hope

For Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Obama offered nothing but pretty words and a tacit understanding that all they are getting is sympathy.

I'm not in the habit of feeling sorry for politicians.

They don't tend to elicit much sympathy.

As elected representatives their actions are subject to considerable scrutiny, justifiably so.

As President of the Free World/capitalist fiefdom (delete according to political view) Barack Obama is the most scrutinised man on the planet.

Israel. Palestine. The United States.

The stage is set for some pretty big tub-thumping.

This is where I must confess I'm not an entirely disinterested party.

I've always had a soft spot for the community organizer in the south side of Chicago who was partial to a bit of blow on the weekends.

I like my politicians to be real.

I'm not the only one. Would-be political leaders are forever trying to present themselves as "regular guys" (or gals). A bit of grit is political gold.

Most people would rather a person with a Past (with a capital P) than a sexless doll spewing soundbites.

Like many others before me, I was captivated by a certain B. H. Obama long before his election win in 2008. Both his family memoir Dreams from my Father and his subsequent political manifesto The Audacity of Hope beguiled and bewitched me. By Jove, the man can write!

It is this literary prowess and oratorical grandeur, frequently compared with the Classical greats, that simultaneously seduces and enrages, when the reality is unable to live up to the fiction. Remember when your favourite book was adapted into an abysmal film (Toni Morrison's Beloved I'm thinking of you)?

I feel the same way about Obama. He was a lot more palatable as a civil rights lawyer and community activist than the President who's signed off more drone attacks in Pakistan than his Republican predecessor George W. Bush.

For many supporters of Palestine, Obama started with such promise. In his Cairo address of 2009 he compared Palestinian suffering to that of the Jewish people and suggested parity between the Palestinian cause and the US civil rights movement.

How times change. Four years' on and the president is aligning the US civil rights movement with the story of Passover and the exodus of the Jews from Egypt (surely the irony is not lost on his erstwhile Egyptian supporters).

Both Israeli and Palestinian commentators saw Obama's visit as a flagrant display of favouritism. Alon Pinkas, writing in Haaretz, describes his trip as "Operation Desert Schmooze", with numerous photo opportunities (laying a stone on Yitzhak Rabin's grave, a trip to the Israel Museum and Yad Vashem) to prove his credentials not so much as a supporter, but a lover of Israel and the Jewish state. Obama's speech was, as Pinkas puts it, "a pedigree Zionist speech...the most pro-Israel speech made by a U.S president ever".

For Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Obama offered nothing but pretty words and a tacit understanding that all they are getting is sympathy. The president was all too quick to backtrack on the settlement freeze policy of his first term (fancy that-a politician reneging on his promise) and told the waiting media in Ramallah that it was unrealistic for Palestinians to expect a settlement freeze as a precondition for peace negotiations.

His words on Palestine were as beautiful as any of the heartfelt passages from one of his books, but he did not make it clear how the Palestinian people can be free to have "a land of their own" when settlement-building continues apace.

He spoke out clearly against the occupation: "It is not fair that a Palestinian child cannot grow up in a state of her own, and lives with the presence of a foreign army that controls the movements of her parents every single day" and acknowledged the indignities and injustices that Palestinians suffer on a daily basis: "It is not right to prevent Palestinians from farming their lands; to restrict a student's ability to move around the West Bank; or to displace Palestinian families from their home" but without any hard-line policy to back it up his rhetoric was just that: empty words.

Surely I'm not the only one who wishes Obama had stayed away? He placated the Israelis that could be placated but failed to reach out to those who cannot forgive him for his middle name. Most Palestinians expected nothing and got nothing in return. Those that wished for more were disappointed. No further proof was needed of the audacity of hope.

Mr President, you had my admiration. Now you have my sorrow.