Global Politics

On eve of Obama's visit, Palestinians press case for electing their own president

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The President" is a new reality TV show produced by the Palestinian Ma'an Network. (Photo by Matthew Bell).

President Barack Obama is off to Israel this week, with most of his two-day visit spent talking with Israeli officials and touring Israeli sites.

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But Obama also plans to spend just a few hours meeting with Palestinians.

The discrepancy in the president’s schedule is one reason why many Palestinians fail to see much value in this visit — coupled with the fact they can’t choose their own president.

In fact, Palestinians haven’t been able to vote in an actual presidential election since 2006. But they will have the chance to play a part — by text message — in choosing the winner of a new reality TV show called, “The President.”

Filming for the show is under way. At a studio outside Bethlehem, a panel of five judges puts political questions to the young contestants. They have two minutes each to answer, by giving an impromptu speech aimed at the Palestinian public.

The judges hold up green or red cards, indicating who makes it to the next round.

On his way out of the studio, Malek Abu Alfailat seemed disappointed. The 27-year-old who works at an environmental organization said he was serious about wanting the top job in Palestinian politics. Even though he didn’t make the cut, he’s still happy to have given it his best shot.

“This is really nice,” Alfailat said. “I’m not the right guy. They said ‘no,’ so I’m out. But we got in front of VIPs and this was really a very nice and a good opportunity for me.”

When asked what they make of President Obama’s plans to stop by Ramallah and Bethlehem, some of the contestants were very diplomatic. Bashar Farashat, a 26-year-old business school graduate from Hebron, said Palestinians in the West Bank are skeptical. But he still has faith President Obama can help improve the lives of Palestinians by influencing their neighbor.

“The most important thing that can affect on Israel is the United States,” he said.

But most Palestinians would say that the U.S. has failed to change Israel’s policies for the better.

Samira Shaheen, a 25-year-old from Nablus, works for an NGO that helps Palestinian women. She said Palestinians see President Obama as a man of empty talk, especially since the recognition of the State of Palestine at the United Nations last year.

“We start to feel bored. He has to bring something new and effective, not just talking and talking and keep talking,” she said.

For starters, Shaheen said, she’d like to see the American president get the Palestinians and Israelis negotiating again — but this time in good faith.

“Obama has to force Israel," she said. "Not just the Palestinians (have) to commit to negotiations ... Israel has also to do that,” Shaheen said.

The man behind “The President” reality show, Raed Othman is with the Ma’an Network, based in Bethlehem, said there’s a message here for Obama.

The time for new Palestinian elections, he said, is long overdue. Obama should make it clear to his partners in the Palestinian Authority that this is unacceptable, he said.

“We have 1,200 young men and women, between 20 years old to 35, who participated in this program,” Othman said. “That’s saying to Mr. Barack Obama: We are ready to be a state like other states. Support the idea of that, in Palestine, we will stop funding, we will stop supporting you, one condition. If you don’t have election every four years, then we will stop this.”

In other words, President Obama has an opportunity with this visit. He can show, Othman said, that the United States is serious about promoting democracy, by making it an explicit priority in the Palestinian Territories.