Clinton visit: In a West Bank café, Palestinians ask how much will change

Patrons at 'Stars and Bucks' critique her statements. 'We already know the quotes by heart,' one says.

By , Staff writer

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    Tour: A Palestinian passed through a checkpoint in the West Bank, as Clinton made her first visit to the territory as secretary of state Wednesday.
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If there is any place in this de facto capital of the West Bank where all things American are welcomed, it's here at Stars and Bucks – an unabashed Starbucks knockoff complete with green-and-white logo, cozy couches, and myriad mochas and lattes.

But even as US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was visiting the Palestinian territories for the first time since her appointment, men and women here took little interest in the fact that their president, Mahmoud Abbas, was standing side by side with her, giving a joint press conference following their first meeting.

Mrs. Clinton, a day after meeting with Israeli officials, reiterated her belief in a two-state solution with Israel and spoke passionately about Palestinian suffering and the right of a Palestinian child to live a normal, secure life, just like a child "growing up in any country."

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But she faces an uphill battle in convincing Palestinians – and others across the Arab world – that the Obama administration is substantially different from its predecessor, while also maintaining the "special relationship" that has been a cornerstone of Middle East policy since her husband, Bill Clinton, was in office.

"We don't want talk, we want action," grumbles Murad Akhbar, a café employee. "It's all empty words."

On a big TV screen, Clinton is still talking, promising that the Obama administration "will be vigorously engaged in the pursuit of a two-state solution every step of the way." She adds, looking away from her notes and to Mr. Abbas: "This is a commitment that I carry in my heart, not just in my portfolio."

Clinton is on the third day of her trip to the region, which began with her attendance Monday at an aid conference for Gaza reconstruction. While some Palestinians here were appreciative of the $900 million the US pledged – out of a total of $4.4 billion raised – many others were skeptical that it would signal the policy correction they feel is necessary: a return to a role as an honest broker and a retreat from what is largely perceived as a bias toward Israel.

Questioned by a reporter about Israel's plans to demolish more than 80 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem, Clinton said that this was "unhelpful," a term her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice, regularly used to describe Israeli settlement growth in the West Bank. "It is an issue that we intend to raise with the government of Israel and the government at the municipal level in Jerusalem," Clinton said. (Read the Monitor's story on Israel's plans to demolish the homes here.)

Mahmoud Nizzam, a well-dressed banker sipping an espresso in one of the Middle America-sized booths by a window overlooking downtown Ramallah, says that is exactly the kind of terminology Palestinians have heard before. "She should know that is not only unhelpful, but it will destroy every opportunity for peace. That's how she should have worded it," he says.

Mr. Nizzam lives in Jenin and works in Nablus, which should be a half-hour commute. But because he must pass through an Israeli checkpoint to leave Jenin, it sometimes takes him two hours. "They're promising to support economic development, but how can I get anything done when it takes that much time to go anywhere?" he asks. "I think Obama's policies are different from those of the last eight years, but unfortunately, I don't know if Obama or Clinton are going to change anything on the ground."

A Hamas-affiliated member of the Palestinian Legislative Council, interviewed in his Ramallah office, suggests that Clinton ought to refuse to deal with the incoming government of Benjamin Netanyahu, the right-wing leader recently elected prime minister, because he does not accept the two-state solution as a way to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He compared the Likud leader's refusal to accept the necessity of a Palestinian state with Hamas's refusal to recognize Israel's right to exist.

"They have said they will deal with the new Israeli government, regardless of what it looks like, but, of course, they continue to put conditions on Palestinian politics and who they will deal with in our society," says Ayman Al-Daraghmeh. "Today, Mrs. Clinton is proving again that they keep repeating themselves and dealing with us by double standards."

At the Palestine Coffee Shop, a less yuppie establishment nearby, middle-aged and elderly men play cards. Here, too, the TV is tuned to the news, but most people seem unfazed. At one table, five vegetable wholesalers are mid-game. Four out of 5 of them – all Fatah supporters – say they expect nothing new from Clinton or President Obama.

But one dissenting voice, Yusuf Hamad, says they should give Clinton a chance. "She pledged money to help the Palestinian Authority. She said two states for two peoples. These have been good words so far," he says.

Back at Stars and Bucks, Nizzam and his friend notice the press conference on TV and continue talking among themselves.

"We already know the quotes by heart," chuckles Ala Al-Arabi, when asked why they hadn't stopped to hear what the new secretary of State had to say. "The people may change, but the politics of the US will stay the same."

He reconsiders. "I think Obama overall will be better than Bush, but we don't see much to be hopeful about; as soon as we got Obama, we also got Netanyahu back," he says.

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