RAMALLAH, West Bank - After an effusive welcome in Israel,
US President Barack Obama traveled to the West Bank on Thursday for
talks with Palestinian leaders who accuse him of sidelining their dream of
Obama flew by helicopter to the Palestinian government
headquarters in Ramallah, where disillusioned Palestinians held out little hope
that their moment in the US presidential spotlight would help revive a
long-dormant peace process.
Some 150 Palestinian demonstrators gathered
in Ramallah to protest against Obama's visit. They were held back by mass ranks
of police who prevented them from nearing President Mahmoud Abbas's compound,
where the aircraft landed.
A smiling Obama, accompanied by Abbas, was met
by mostly stern-faced Palestinian officials along a red carpet - a stark
contrast to the broad grins and backslapping during an elaborate welcoming
ceremony on Wednesday at Tel Aviv airport.
Obama has made clear he is not
bringing any new peace initiatives but instead has come to Israel and the
Palestinian territories on a "listening" tour.
As a reminder of the
ever-present risks in the region, Palestinian militants in the Gaza Strip fired
two rockets into Sderot, a southern Israeli town that Obama visited as a
presidential candidate in 2008. Police said no one was hurt.
no claim of responsibility, and Obama is not going to visit Gaza, which is
controlled by the Islamist group Hamas, a rival to the Western-backed Abbas, who
condemned the attack.
Obama held talks with Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday and toured the Israel Museum with him on
Thursday, viewing the ancient Dead Sea Scrolls - underscoring the Jewish link to
the Holy Land - and a high-tech exhibit.
The main focus of his initial
discussions with Netanyahu appeared to be pressing regional concerns, primarily
Iran's nuclear ambitions and the civil war in neighboring Syria, and winning
the hearts of a skeptical Israeli public.
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 US-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 Abbas, a moderate whom Washington wants to
shore up, and also in a keynote speech hours later to students in
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
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-US 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 Israel, Obama has been drawing new
praise 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 that he was
"absolutely convinced" that Obama was determined to prevent a nuclear-armed
Iran. Tehran says it is enriching uranium for peaceful purposes.
Hebrew-language press gave largely positive reviews for Obama, who is distrusted
in Israel following perceived missteps in his first term that were viewed as
"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
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.
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.