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Obama meets with Arafat's successor

Thursday, January 12, 2006

Illinois Senator Barack Obama's journey to the Middle East took him to the West Bank Thursday for a meeting with the man elected to replace Yasser Arafat.

Senator Obama will head into the final day of his Middle East tour having met with top leaders of the Israeli government and now with the head of the Palestinian National Authority.

Palestinians clashing with Israelis and with each other. Israelis fighting with each other and the Palestinians. Boundless volleys of gunfire and anger. For a time Thursday in the West Bank there was only the clatter of cameras as the newly elected president of the Palestinian authority, Mahmoud Abbas, meets with Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

Obama's meeting with the successor to the late Yasser Arafat comes as Palestinians and Israelis approach yet another crossroads: The January 25 election of the Palestinian parliament.

Pre-election bickering has resulted in a wave of political violence the past two months, mainly between rivals in the Fatah faction, which is expected to win a majority of 132 legislative seats. But candidates from the militant Hamas group are projected to win a third or more of the contests. The US government considers Hamas a major terrorist organization that received millions of dollars in funding from Chicago-area Arabs.

At a meeting with Palestinian students Thursday, Obama said the US will never recognize winning Hamas candidates unless the group renounces its fundamental mission to eliminate Israel, and Obama told ABC7 he delivered that message to the Palestinian president.

"Part of the opportunity here with this upcoming election is to consolidate behind a single government with a single authority that can then negotiate as a reliable partner with Israel," said Obama.

But many Palestinian officials say the US should respect whoever wins in a democratic election.

"They must accept the results. This is democracy," said Anton Salman, Fatah party member.

Salman is a city councilman in Bethlehem, hallowed ground in Islam, Judaism and Christianity.

Bethlehem's Church of the Nativity stands at the birthplace of Christ. Inside the church, a stairway to an underground cave leads to an altar, directly over the precise spot where Mary gave birth to Jesus. Now guards with automatic weapons patrol the perimeter, following a bloody church siege by Palestinian fighters in 2002.

From his Bethlehem balcony Kahlil Maria watches construction of the wall intended to fence in Palestinians. Maria was educated at the universities of Iowa and Missouri and returned to live in the holy land, where he says he and his family doubt this month's Palestinian election will solve anything.

"For someone who has lost his land, lost his main source of income, what do you expect? What do you expect those elections would bring? They might bring Arafat again. They might bring Hamas again. What difference would it make?" Maria said.

Senator Obama said Thursday that the Palestinians, the Israelis and the US have all made foreign policy mistakes trying to broker Middle East peace.

Obama told Palestinians that they need to get their own house in order to successfully reign in violent factions and come to the table with Israel speaking with one voice. But even then, says Obama, the US will always side with Israel if Israel is threatened with destruction. The goal should be, Obama says, Israeli and Palestinian states co-existing, a goal that so far remains elusive.

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