Obama’s elusive winds of change

2013-03-24 10:00

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US president’s visit to Bethlehem fails to impress the people.

All of a sudden the sky over Bethlehem changed.

The hot morning sun disappeared and heavy winds started sweeping through the deserted streets of the little Palestinian town just before the expected arrival of US President Barack Obama last Friday.

“Maybe this is the wind of change,” Mustafa Alaraj said jokingly as Palestinian soldiers pushed him back behind the security barriers.

The curious crowds that had gathered on the square in front of the Nativity Church had to clear the area completely in order to ensure the visitor’s security.

“No, we don’t expect anything from Obama,” he adds.

Alaraj normally works in one of the restaurants on the square, but this Friday was far from normal.

Everything had to be closed when Obama came to visit the Nativity Church, one of Christianity’s most sacred places.

It was a visit the majority of the Palestinians despised.

“He is not welcome here. He doesn’t do anything for us and he supports Israel in everything they do – the settlements, the occupation, the wall,” Alaraj said.

Not even Obama’s powerful speech in front of the Israeli youth on Thursday, in which he emphasised Israel and Palestine’s rights to have their own free state, could mitigate the 24-year-old’s disappointment.

“Words alone don’t help; we need actions,” said Alaraj. “Forty-eight hours is a little time to even deliver messages.”

Obama made clear what was most important to him, however, highlighting the tight bond between the US and Israel, and affirming that his nation stands with the Jewish state as a faithful ally.

He talked about future military assistance and assured that the US “will do what it must in order to prevent Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon”. Bottom line: the alliance between Israel and the US has never been stronger.

The Israeli public didn’t seem convinced of Obama’s first trip to Israel, during which he more than once urged for the resumption of direct peace talks.

Chaim Levinson, a journalist from Jerusalem who works for the national daily Ha’aretz, doubts that anything changes with the US president’s visit.

“Our government is doing everything to please Obama. It’s a choreographed show,” he said.

Levinson covers the Jewish settlements in the West Bank and thinks: “Obama needs to put pressure on the Israeli government to halt the settlement construction immediately. Otherwise, we will never have talks because this is the core issue of the conflict.”

For Mahir Alawneh, a Palestinian, it is the minor issues his people have to deal with that he hopes Obama noticed.

The Palestinian production manager designed the billboards that are seaming the road from the Israeli checkpoint to Ramallah.

Said Alawneh: “President Obama, you can leave your smartphone at home. We have no 3G in Ramallah.”

He added: “Obama once said he never leaves the house without his BlackBerry and we wanted to show him that we are deprived of things he takes for granted.”

Alawneh developed the message in his office – a table in the back of a little restaurant just outside the centre of Ramallah, the modern Palestinian town 15km north of Jerusalem.

“Obama said he wants to bring change and he can, but where is this change?

“But maybe he can push for some minor changes – and pave the way for the bigger issues.”

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