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Palestinians eye concrete gains during Obama visit

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The Palestinians are hoping to see concrete gains from US President Barack Obama’s upcoming visit, while acknowledging it unlikely the trip will bring about a peace breakthrough.

Obama himself has played down expectations of pushing forward peace talks on his first visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories as president, but the Palestinian optimism stems from other issues.

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Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas’s top priority during the Obama visit is to secure the release of more than 1,000 prisoners held by Israel, his negotiator Saeb Erakat said on Thursday.

But they are also hoping to see key US funding issues resolved when Obama arrives for talks at the Palestinian leader’s political headquarters in Ramallah on March 21.

US Secretary of State John Kerry, who will accompany Obama, in February voiced his intention to deliver $700 million (540 million euros) in aid to the Palestinian Authority, most of which has been blocked for months by Congress.

State department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland told reporters on Friday that “an economically viable Palestinian Authority is in the interest not only of the Palestinians themselves but of regional peace and security.”

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“I’m confident (the issue) will also come up on the president’s trip,” she added.

Abbas’s political adviser Nimr Hammad invoked hopes the US president would push forward with issues raised early in his first term.

Obama must “realise what he promised in his speech at Cairo University (in June 2009): cessation of settlement building in all its forms, which is an obstacle to a Palestinian state,” he told AFP.

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The US leader must also make good on “his hope for Palestine to become a full member of the UN,” he told AFP, referring to the president’s remarks in a speech from September 2010.

In the event, the United States voted against Palestinian observer state membership of the UN, in a resolution that passed with overwhelming international support.

On the issue of peace, Obama has downplayed the likelihood his visit would achieve concrete gains.

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Speaking to American Jewish community leaders last week, he signalled there would be no big Middle East peace initiative on the table and told his guests that he was not aiming to resolve any specific policy issue during the visit.

In Moscow on Friday, Abbas said he hoped “this year, the situation will allow the start of talks with Israel,” but added “we aren’t too optimistic.”

The Gaza-based Palestinian NGO network urged Obama to bring “serious change” to his policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, expressing the hope he would make good on past promises.

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But in Ramallah, another activist group called Palestinians for Dignity expressed open hostility to Obama’s visit, calling for protests to reject “a return to futile negotiations.”

It also denounced “attempts by the Palestinian leadership to lighten the atmosphere through statements about Obama’s pressure on the Israeli government on the question of prisoners or American charity.”

And Ismail Haniya, ruler of the rival Hamas movement which governs the Gaza Strip, warned Abbas “not to fall into the trap of Obama’s next visit to the region and close the door on (inter-Palestinian) reconciliation.”

Arabic-language daily Al-Quds railed against “the apparent determination of Palestinians to put all their eggs in one basket,” as the “American bottomless basket has sapped the energy of the Palestinians and neutralised their resistance.”

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It said the Palestinian Authority had not stuck to its guns on pursuing Israeli “crimes” through the International Criminal Court, “almost four months after the (upgraded) status of Palestine at the UN.”

In an exclusive interview with Israel’s Channel 2 television on Thursday, Obama cautioned the Palestinians against further moves to secure UN recognition as a state.

“To Abu Mazen (Abbas), I will say that trying to unilaterally go to, for example, the United Nations, and do an end run around Israel, is not going to be successful,” he said.


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