Palestinians wonder: Will Obama make good on his promises?

Though pleased with Obama's meeting with Palestinian President Abbas Thursday, they are waiting to see if the US president will break from decades of failed US policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Palestinians watched with hope this week as President Barack Obama called for an Israeli settlement freeze and spoke about the need to move quickly toward statehood alongside President Mahmoud Abbas at the White House.

But despite the clear signal of a shift, there is caution in the West Bank and Gaza as Palestinians judge whether the administration has the mettle to make good on promises which have become all too familiar.

"Obama has new speech, but not yet a strategy," says Mohammed Khirresh, a Palestinian economist and political analyst, speaking on the sidelines of a Ramallah policy conference sponsored by the Palestinian Center for Media and Research. "The criterion for Obama's new strategy is whether I can see it on the ground and touch it. Otherwise, it's empty words."

Despite his charm and message of change, Obama must still overcome a deficit from decades of failed US policy on mediating an Israeli-Palestinian peace.

Palestinians are weary of a peace process that has been long on talk and short on dividends, and that has eroded the credibility of the president's diplomatic pulpit. There are also questions whether one president has the political ability to buck decades of US partiality toward Israel.

Palestinians applaud US pressure on Israel

Still, the new US administration has won a degree of credit with Palestinians by immediately pushing for a resumption of peace negotiations on the creation of a Palestinian state.

Moreover, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton demanded this week an unequivocal cessation of Israeli building in the West Bank, a rare public admission of a deep policy difference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who insists that construction must continue to allow for the "natural growth" of existing settlements.

Palestinians were disappointed that the mediation efforts by the Clinton and Bush administrations came up short and seemed slanted in Israel's favor.

"The Obama administration has shown seriousness in terms of early engagement," says Nasser al-Kidwa, a former Palestinian Authority Foreign Minister. "We should be ready to do our part to fulfill our commitments."

Still, conditions are less than ideal, because Israel's right-wing government won't endorse a two-state solution and because of the ongoing rift with Hamas, a long-time critic of negotiations with Israel.

Because Mr. Abbas is a proponent of diplomacy instead of violence, his political fortune is in large degree tied to Obama's ability to push Israel to ease restrictions on movement in the West Bank, allow goods into the Gaza Strip, and restart a credible negotiations process.

Sensing that international sympathies are swinging in their favor, Palestinians are demanding that Mr. Netanyahu explicitly endorse the two-state solution and implement a settlement freeze before returning to the peace table.

"A change has taken place," says Majid Abdel Sweilem, a political science professor at Al Quds University in Jerusalem and a supporter of Abbas. "This allows us to start negotiations in a different place than we used to."

Even Hamas is sounding politely upbeat. An aide to Hamas's Gaza leader, Ismail Haniyeh, said that the Islamic militants seek to foster good relations with the West, including the US, which lists the group as a terrorist organization.

"We have no other choice," said the aide, Ahmed Yousef, addressing the Ramallah gathering by video link. "We hope that the new administration will take a more balanced approach in solving the conflict."

A focus on Palestinian reconciliation

Despite the niceties, the policy of the new US administration was not the primary focus of the opening plenum.

When Cairo was mentioned, it was not in connection to Obama's much-anticipated speech there next week, but rather, the next round of negotiations to resolve the two-year-old split between Hamas in Gaza and Abbas's Fatah Party in the West Bank.

Palestinian reunification is considered a prerequisite for any stable peace deal, and it's still unclear whether the Obama administration will relax conditions for working with a Palestinian government that includes Hamas.

In addition to a laundry list of internal divisions over powersharing, there is a very deep Palestinian debate over recognition of Israel and the legitimacy of the use violence against Israeli targets.

"Without a Palestinian agreement, Obama won't have any impact," says Hani al-Masri, the director of the Palestinian Center for Media and Research.

The Obama peace-process policy is a good start, he says, but Palestinians want to know just how the administration plans to impose a settlement freeze and force Israel to relax movement restrictions.

While Obama is expected to speak in broad strokes in Cairo, Palestinians will be waiting to hear the specifics, he says. "We say the devil is in the details."

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