David Gardner
The Financial Times (Analysis)
November 23, 2009 - 1:00am

Has Barack Obama made a hash of his Middle East peace diplomacy? That seems to be the verdict of international commentators and – more to the point – of Palestinian leaders in despair at ever getting their own state and an Israeli government exulting that it made the US president blink first.

Yet, it is worth stepping outside the hothouse for a minute to examine whether it is that simple: whether Mr Obama will be content to see his ambitious strategy of reconciliation with the Arab and Muslim worlds held hostage by the obdurate obstruction of the government of Benjamin Netanyahu.

In his rapturously received speech at Cairo University in June, President Obama started a new conversation in and about the Middle East. Publicly restating what he had just said privately in Washington to Mr Netanyahu, whose rightwing coalition refuses to rein in colonisation of Palestinian land or push a two-state solution, Mr Obama made the ultra-parsed statement that “the United States does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements”. When he told Israel that “part of being a good friend is being honest”, the country’s political elites got an inkling that decades of double-talk on the conflict with the Palestinians were over. When he added that “just as Israel’s right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine’s”, any remaining doubts were surely dissipated. Weren’t they?

His implicit comparison of the “intolerable” situation of the Palestinians under Israeli “occupation” with the struggles of African slaves in America and South African black people under apartheid surely signalled to the irredentist right in Israel and their allies in Washington that they were dealing with someone who means business. This was language seldom heard from an American leader. Yet in the subsequent test of wills over US demands for a total freeze on settlement-building it does look as if Mr Obama has backed down.

On the face of it, he has bungled his attempt to jump-start peace talks. Mr Netanyahu continues boastfully to expand the settlements, and yet Hillary Clinton, secretary of state, greets his few cosmetic gestures as “unprecedented”. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president who has made the resumption of talks conditional on a settlement freeze, has been publicly humiliated.

Overwhelmingly the weaker party in the conflict, he let himself be forced by the Obama administration into a public handshake with Mr Netanyahu, and bowed to pressure to delay discussion of Judge Richard Goldstone’s United Nations report – dismissed as “morally twisted” by Mr Netanyahu – on last winter’s Israeli assault on Gaza. With nothing to show for his principled attempt to get a negotiated end to the occupation of the West Bank and Arab east Jerusalem, Mr Abbas says he is withdrawing from politics. If so, he will be succeeded by more radical and uncompromising leaders.

Washington has also failed to marshal its Arab allies into making confidence-building concessions to Israel. Without any substantive gesture by Israel, which has spurned the comprehensive peace offer first made by the Arab League in 2002, that was practically inevitable.

The Arabs believe that in 1992-96, at the height of the peace process, Israel got a peace dividend, without ending the occupation. Diplomatic recognition of Israel doubled, from 85 to 161 countries, leading to doubled exports and a six-fold increase in foreign investment, while per capita income in the occupied territories fell by 37 per cent and the number of settlers increased by 50 per cent.

The settlers now number close to half a million Israelis, including those in east Jerusalem. The system of segregated “bypass” roads, some 600 military checkpoints in an area the size of Lincolnshire or Delaware, and the “separation” barrier that cuts deep into the West Bank, foreclose on any practical possibility of a self-governing Palestinian state.

It may be that this archipelago of Bantustans means the dream of disentangling the Holy Land into two states is over. But there is no other viable option – for the Israelis or the Palestinians. The alternative is to sleep-walk into a bi-national entity that would undermine the foundations of a democratic Jewish state, with the Palestinians’ quest for equal rights taking on the appearance of the fight against apartheid in South Africa. Will Mr Obama simply let this happen?

He clearly sees it as in Israel’s long-term security interest and the US national interest to reach a fair settlement of the Palestinian conflict. He also sees how the problems of the region have become interlinked – especially since the invasion of Iraq enhanced Iranian influence and sank America’s reputation deeper into the mire – and how an Israel-Palestine deal could start to reverse that. But as US president he holds some cards.

Israelis have a record of turning against leaders who place the vital US alliance in jeopardy: Menachem Begin learnt this, Yitzhak Shamir learnt this and so, to a limited extent, did Mr Netanyahu, when he was voted out of office in 1999.

Vital to that alliance is US support in the UN Security Council, where it has cast 29 vetoes to shield Israel from condemnation for its actions in the occupied territories. Imagine the signal the US would send were it even to abstain. Or, better still, if the US and its allies took a blueprint for a two-state solution – the outlines of which have long been clear – to the council and voted it through. This game is not over yet.



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