- The Washington Times - Monday, March 5, 2012

Palestinian officials on Monday lamented that their quest for statehood has taken a back seat to Iran’s nuclear program and President Obama’s re-election campaign, a day after Mr. Obama delivered a defense of his Mideast policy to a top pro-Israel lobbying group.

In his speech to the annual gathering of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, Mr. Obama said that “at every crucial juncture - at every fork in the road - we have been there for Israel,” reminding the audience of his opposition last year to the Palestinian bid for U.N. membership.

Mr. Obama reiterated his support for a Palestinian state, but most of his speech focused on stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.

Palestinian spokeswoman Hanan Ashrawi told The Washington Times on Monday that she thought Mr. Obama had “really exposed his hand.”

“I thought this was a quintessential election speech appealing for votes primarily, trying to demonstrate allegiance to Israel as a way back to the White House,” she said. “It’s unconscionable.”

But she and other Palestinian officials say they are not surprised at the president’s pro-Israel tone.

“You’re disappointed when you have expectations,” Ms. Ashrawi said. “We’re not disappointed because we didn’t have expectations. I agree with President Obama that no one has served Israel so faithfully as him.”

Palestinian officials have soured on Mr. Obama, who spent much of his first two years in office seeking a two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“We had very high hopes when this administration took office,” the top Palestinian representative to Washington, Maen Rashid Areikat, said Monday. “We were very much encouraged by their early efforts to reinvigorate the peace process.”

Those measures - such as Mr. Obama’s call for an Israeli settlement freeze and his insistence that a two-state solution be based on Israel’s pre-1967 borders - were the same ones that initially made many Israelis wary of him.

But faced with an Israeli government more concerned with Iran and a Palestinian leadership that refuses to return to direct negotiations, Mr. Obama largely has disengaged from the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

And with Republican presidential candidates criticizing his pro-Israel bona fides, he has sought to reassure Jewish voters that - as he put it Sunday - “when the chips are down, I have Israel’s back.”

Mr. Areikat and Ms. Ashrawi said Mr. Obama long ago had abandoned any pretense of being an evenhanded broker in the conflict.

“They have to hold all parties accountable,” Mr. Areikat said. “What we have is a situation where the Palestinian side was always held accountable, while Israelis got away with their efforts to undermine the process.”

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