Obama to face Palestinian dismay in West Bank trip

JERUSALEM (AFP) - United States President Barack Obama will travel to the West Bank on Thursday to meet Palestinian leaders dismayed by his failure to make good on soaring expectations that he could help deliver Middle East peace.

Mr Obama was to meet Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas at 0900 GMT (5pm Singapore time) and then Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, on the second day of his visit to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, dominated by the growing regional challenges of Iran and Syria.

The President, on the first foreign trip of his second term, said he came to the Holy Land simply to listen to leaders on both sides of the peace talks, which have been frozen for two-and-a-half years. He said he decided against coming armed with a comprehensive peace plan that might not be fit for current political conditions.

"Ultimately, this is a really hard problem," Mr Obama said during a press conference with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday. "It's been lingering for over six decades. And the parties involved have, you know, some profound interests that you can't spin, you can't smooth over. And it is a hard slog to work through all of these issues."

Mr Obama's new approach was a stark contrast to early in his first term, when he declared that Israeli settlement building that ultimately scuppered his peace efforts was illegitimate and promised to dedicate himself to peace. He admitted on Wednesday that he had perhaps made mistakes, but argued that he was not the only US leader to have come a cropper on the issue.

"I hope I'm a better president now than when I first came into office," Mr Obama said. "I'm absolutely sure that there are a host of things that I could have done that would have been more deft and, you know, would have created better optics."

Palestinian peace negotiator Nabil Shaath on Wednesday published an op-ed message to Mr Obama in the Israeli newspaper Haaretz, urging him to prove his commitment to a two-state solution by turning pledges into deeds.

"We could have saved lives and political capital if President Obama had shown the determination to create the right environment for meaningful decisions leading to a two-state solution," he wrote. "Now, rather than calling for the resumption of a meaningless 'peace process', we Palestinians expect real action on the ground."

Mr Shaath added that Obama had disappointed Palestinians who once warmed to his calls for an end to settlement building.

"President Obama appeared to give up on his goal," he said.