Arts, Culture & Media

Would-Be Palestinian Presidents Reflect on Obama Visit to Israel

You've probably heard that the president is off to Israel this week. Most of his two-day visit will be spent talking with Israeli officials and touring Israeli sites.

Obama also plans to spend 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. And the fact that 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 to determine 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, but 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 VIP's 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. 26-year-old Bashar Farashat is a business school graduate from Hebron. He said Palestinians in the West Bank are skeptical. But he still has faith that 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 US has failed to change Israel's policies for the better.

Samira Shaheen is a 25-year-old from Nablus who 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, yeah. He has to force, not just the Palestinian has to commit the negotiations, the Israel has also to do that," Shaheen said.

The man behind "The President" reality show said there's a message here for Barack Obama.

Raed Othman is with the Ma'an Network, based in Bethlehem. The time for new Palestinian elections, he said, are long overdue. And Obama should make it clear to his partners in the Palestinian Authority that this is unacceptable.

"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 that the United States is serious about promoting democracy, by making it an explicit priority in the Palestinian Territories.

  • tvset-e1363627494683.jpg

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

  • P1100283.jpg

    Bashar Farashat survived until the next round of the reality show. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

  • P1100269.jpg

    Samira Shaheen, 25, from Nablus, advanced to the next stage of "The President" reality show. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

  • P1100262.jpg

    Samira Shaheen's family was there to congratulate her being chosen to advance to the next round. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

  • P1100236-e1363628852663.jpg

    Bashar Farashat is a 26 year-old business school graduate from Hebron. (Photo: Matthew Bell)

  • P1100248.jpg

    A contestant on "The President" prepares to give a speech in front of the judges. (Photo: Matthew Bell)