US President Barack Obama has arrived in Jerusalem on his first visit to Israel. However, disillusionment is high and expectations are low that his trip will yield any progress on the peace process with the Palestinians.
Published at Deutsche Welle.
When Kaiser Wilhelm II visited Jerusalem in 1898, the ruler of the Ottoman Empire at the time, Sultan Abdel Hamid II prepared for the visit six months in advance. A special focus was Jaffa Road, the main thoroughfare of Jerusalem. It starts at the towering beige stone walls of the Old City and leads to the exit of the city in the west, and from there to the coastal city of Jaffa. Abdel Hamid cleaned up the street, repaired grimy facades, and even paved a special passage for Wilhelm’s imperial carriage to drive into the Old City through Jaffa Gate.
Ahead of the first presidential visit of Barack Obama, Jerusalem is nowhere near the enthusiasm of that historic visit. Instead, all along Jaffa Road, which links ultra-Orthodox, secular Jewish and Palestinian neighborhoods, Jerusalemites say they expect little to come of Obama’s trip.
Outside the Old City in mid-March, Raya Issa walked back to east Jerusalem after eating Thai food with her cousin. Palestinians claim east Jerusalem as the capital of their future state.
“Peace process? We heard about that a long time ago,” said Raya, 21. “Obama’s not coming here to help us in any way, only Israel.”
Near Zion Square, the beginning of the central pedestrian mall in Jerusalem, Sarah Tadesse walked with her two children to a pharmacy. Born in Ethiopia, Tadesse, 24, moved to Israel five years ago. She is one of about 130,000 Israelis with Ethiopian roots. She said seeing America’s first black president was inspirational – but it didn’t make her more hopeful about his visit.
“I would want [Obama] to make peace,” she said, “but I don’t think he’s going to succeed.”
Besides its legacy as the road of the Kaiser, Jaffa Road also has the distinction of suffering the most bombing attacks in all of Israel. To name a few – two buses were blown up near the central bus station in 1996. Three other bombs targeted the central vegetable market. In 2001, a suicide bomber exploded at Sbarro pizza, just off Zion Square.
Perhaps this explains the hardline attitude of many Jewish Jerusalemites.
Eli Azulay stood at his hardware shop counter steps from the entrance to the city’s sprawling outdoor vegetable market. Azulay, 71, warned Obama not to get too hopeful about resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
“The land of Israel is too small for two peoples,” Azulay said. He dismissed the idea of a Palestinian state along the borders set before the 1967 war, when Israel captured the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip. “Let’s say we agree to the 1967 borders,” he said. “In another 10 years another Palestinian leader will say, we want Tel Aviv, we want Jerusalem, we want Haifa.”
Nearby, Miriam, a religious Jewish woman who declined to give her last name, bought a kilogram of red pepper at a spice shop. She said she was happy to see Obama visit. But she warned about the Biblical story of Jacob and his twin brother Essau, who went to war, as a parallel for the Israelis and Palestinians.
“In the Torah it is written that Jacob hated Essau,” she said.
Angelica Anto, 52, walked downtown from the Central Bus Station. She immigrated from Russia 33 years ago and works as a translator.
“[Obama] wasn’t fair to us,” Anto said. “He doesn’t respond strongly enough to Iran, which wants to wipe us out.”
Palestinians, meanwhile, say that their economy is being strangled by Israeli rule, which includes building Jewish homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Obama will also hold talks witht Palestinian Premier Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah during his trip.
Twenty-year-old student Yusra Abu Nijma said if she were in a room with Obama, “I would have nothing to say. The Palestinians don’t have rights, and I don’t think he cares.”
During Obama’s first term, he and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu often clashed over Israel’s settlement policies in east Jerusalem and the West Bank, where the Palestinians claim a future state. Initially, Obama put intense pressure on Israel to freeze settlement construction. Later, he appeared to withdraw from the issue.
Hebrew University political scientist Yaron Ezrahi said this zigzagging had cost Obama his reputation in Jerusalem.
“He has not shown fortitude in dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict,” Ezrahi said. “He was wavering between trying mildly to push for the peace process, disappointment that he had not succeeded, to ‘if you really need my help, here’s my number.'”
Ezrahi said both Israelis and Palestinians had other issues to think about. In Israel, a new coalition government has just been sworn and it remains to be seen how stable it is. The rapidly unraveling situation in neighboring Syria is another distraction.
Not all Jerusalemites have lost faith in Obama. On the last stretch of Jaffa Road, lawyer Sami Hourani waited for a bus near the city’s main station. Hourani, 24, moved to the capital from an Arab village in northern Israel. Asked if he had high hopes for Obama to make peace, he said, “experience says no, but Obama doesn’t have much to lose. Maybe he’ll use more of his power to really talk and not waste time.”
Photo by Daniella Cheslow.