Tuesday, January 22, 2013
Palestinians left out of Obama's swearing-in over 'address mix-up'
Jan 22, 2013
WASHINGTON // Scores of foreign dignitaries and diplomats were among the hundreds of high-profile guests seated near Barack Obama on the western steps of the Capitol yesterday as he promised to "preserve, protect and defend" the Constitution of the United States.
With its pomp and ceremony, a US presidential inauguration is frequently touted here as an inspiring example for less fortunate countries of peaceful and orderly transitions of power.
But one diplomat from a people long denied statehood, in some ways as a direct result of US policy, had no seat at the festivities yesterday.
"You know it's a funny thing," said Maen Rashid Areikat, the Palestinian envoy to Washington, about not receiving an invitation to Mr Obama's swearing-in. "Technically we are not on their diplomatic list because we are not recognised as a full-fledged state.
"When we checked last they told us that because we changed addresses and emails," he said, his voice trailing off. "It could be technical, it could be logistical. But I don't feel angry."
Mr Areikat's exclusion from the inaugural ceremony may not have been intentional, but it somehow fits Washington's view of Palestinians and their cause.
Officially the chief representative of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in the US, Mr Areikat has one of the most thankless jobs of any diplomat in Washington, and his unflagging optimism is an enduring asset as he tries to change perceptions of members of Congress from both parties, many of whom either do not support the Palestinian cause or are ignorant about it.
The White House, for its part, is wary of any involvement in the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, even as it engages with the new democracies of the Middle East.
Virtually no Middle East analyst expects Mr Obama to spend much time or political capital in his second term attempting to restart the peace process. More strategically important foreign policy challenges in the Middle East and Asia will absorb the administration's attention.
Today's almost certain victory for prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his Likud party in Israel's parliamentary elections signals another crippling blow to any move towards Palestinian statehood.
With the expansion of Jewish settlements on occupied Palestinian land continuing apace and no political pressure within rightward moving Israel for concessions, the land-for-peace premise that has been the basis for negotiations is crumbling.
When Mr Areikat first came to Washington just after Mr Obama first entered office in 2009, real change seemed more possible than ever because Mr Obama had made finding a solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict a priority and was pushing for a settlement freeze.
But the US president made the mistake of blinking first when Mr Netanyahu refused to accept a freeze as a precondition to talks, Mr Areikat said.
The US administration "should have stood fast and resisted the pressure and continued to demand that Netanyahu cease the settlement activities", he said. "Four years later we see where the settlement enterprise has taken us.
"Of course, we were disappointed by the fact that the administration did not pursue its objectives with resolve, and at the first confrontation they backed down."
But Mr Areikat, in the face all facts to the contrary, believes that Middle East peace is still a core US interest and that Mr Obama's second term holds glimmers of promise.
Only a two-state solution can ensure Israel's long-term security, and if this is one of the pillars of US policy in the region, then the second Obama administration must stay involved, Mr Areikat said.
John Kerry's nomination for secretary of state is promising because he is an advocate of a strong US role in the Middle East and in resolving its conflicts, he added. "But presidential involvement in any effort is crucial."
Mr Areikat also sees opportunity in the US policy of engagement with the new democracies of the Middle East, especially Egypt.