A fresh start? Hopes linger as Barack Obama heads home from visit aimed at boosting Israeli-Palestinian relations


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Barack Obama boarded Air Force One today bringing to an end his three-day visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories that many hope will mark a fresh start in Israeli and Palestinian relations.

It was the weather that took centre stage on the final day of the visit. A sandstorm meant that his helicopter was unable to make the short fight between Jerusalem and Bethlehem in the West Bank, meaning that Mr Obama was nearly an hour late for a planned trip to the Church of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus.

Instead, the president drove to Bethlehem, a trip that took him through the Israelis' controversial separation barrier. And in Bethlehem itself there were a few scuffles in Manger Square ahead of the president's visit. At the mosque in Manger Square, the Iman described the US as the, "source of all evil in world. We will not give up one bit of our land."

Like on Thursday when he visited Palestinian Authority president, Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah, Mr Obama's trip to the West Bank  was brief. He returned to Jerusalem for a two-hour meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu at the King David hotel, where the Israeli prime minister called for a greater emphasis on security arrangements in any subsequent talks with the Palestinians.

Mr Obama said before arriving in the region that he was not going to announce any new peace initiative, but in a sign that Washington believes at least some progress has been made, the new US Secretary of State John Kerry will continue meetings with Mr Netanyahu later tomorrow and will return to the region next month, and in May.

The day started with a visit to Mount Herzl, home to Israel's national cemetery. Mr Obama laid a wreath at the tomb of Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli prime minister assassinated in 1995, and that of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism.

Israel's ambassador to the US, Michael Oren told the Haaretz newspaper that, "everything in this trip is rife with significance and symbolism not necessarily understandable to people around the world but poignantly meaningful to people in the Middle East. By laying a wreath at Herzl's grave just now - an act that other foreign leaders have refused to do - President Obama was reaffirming Zionism and the idea of a Jewish state."

Later, in a speech at Yad Vashem, Israel's memorial to those murdered in the Holocaust, Mr Obama, said: "Here we see how evil can, for a moment in time, triumph ... Here we learn that we are never powerless. The state of Israel does not exist because of the Holocaust, but with the survival of the state of Israel, there will never be a Holocaust again."

From Ben-Gurion airport, Mr Obama flew to Jordan, where he was due last night to meet King Abdullah. The president's visit to the Holy Land will be a considered a broad success: he has left behind no reason to doubt that America is committed to a two-state solution, but it is the Israelis, rather than the Palestinians, who will be the more pleased.

Mr Abbas and his colleagues will face pressure to abandon their policy of only agreeing to a resumption of peace talks when there is a freeze on settlement building in the West Bank. At the same time, Mr Netanyahu faces the difficult task of persuading his new government - some members of which are openly hostile to a two-state solution - that a resumption of talks is a positive step forward.