Dina Khanat
Gulf News (Opinion)
December 9, 2009 - 1:00am

Even before US President Barack Obama gave his inauguration speech, a ray of hope swept the region. Discussions took place regarding Obama's new Middle East policy and hopes that an Israeli-Palestinian deal would be struck under his leadership intensified. Muslims refused to refer to him as anything but Barack Hussain Obama, and the president's "let us embrace one another and forget the past" speech only fuelled even high expectations.

But Obama has retreated from earlier criticism of Israeli colonies and levelled another blow to Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, and there no longer seems to be much reason for hope. Obama's initial demand that Israel freeze its colony expansion has devolved into what appears more like a plea for Tel Aviv to restrict the construction of new projects.

US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton even went so far as to praise Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for offering "unprecedented" concessions on West Bank colony construction and hailed his commitment to restarting peace talks.

There is no reason to expect that Obama will be able to break the deadlock in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations and achieve peace. This is because leadership, while an important component in peace making, is not solely sufficient to change policies when it comes to this conflict.

In order for peace to be realised between the Palestinians and the Israelis, there needs to be a major shift in the status quo that would lead the powers involved to make concessions. Although Israel and the US' hegemonic manoeuvres in the region do not go unchallenged, no major event has taken place to justify a reassessment of policies on the Israeli or American side.

With superior military power and virtually unconditional support from the US, Israel maintains the upper hand in its negotiations with the Palestinians. There is also the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington to effectively influence policies and politicians in line with Israel's interest.

While Iran and its proxies may irritate Tel Aviv, non-state actors are no match for Israel's power and a direct confrontation with Iran is unlikely to take place in the near future because Israel's possession of nuclear weapons is a good enough deterrence.

There is also no urgency for the Americans to broker a deal between the Palestinians and the Israelis.

The fact that Arabs and Muslims resent the US for supporting Israel is not a new revelation. Nor is the occasional suicide bomber blowing himself up and shouting "death to the US" a strong enough motivation for the US to reconsider its policy towards the Jewish state.

US presidents, policymakers, advisers analysts and maybe even the average Joe all know that US support for Israel is the number one Arab grievance. This was not sufficient to change US policy in the past and it remains insufficient today with the Obama administration in power.

Despite the woes of the financial crisis and two devastating and unpopular wars, the US remains the world's only superpower. US interests in the Middle East have not changed: protecting Israel, securing a cheap flow of oil and preventing ‘radical' regimes from taking power.

Nothing new has arisen to cause the US to reassess its policy towards the region. Traditionally, the US has played the role of protector to Gulf states. That relationship has only strengthened after the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the progression of Iran's nuclear capabilities.

The US has extended its embrace to Jordan, Egypt and even Syria. The late Syrian president Hafez Al Assad cooperated with the US on a number of crucial issues. Syria's initial intervention in Lebanon was made with the blessing of the US, the two countries were in the same camp during the Iran-Iraq war and Syria joined the US-led coalition against Iraq in the Gulf War.

Following the September 11 attacks, Syrian President Bashar Al Assad shared intelligence with the US, and although the two countries may appear to clash regarding Iraq, in reality they have a shared interest in ensuring that violence doesn't spill over and that the country doesn't spin out of control.

There is no doubt that US involvement is essential in any Israeli-Palestinian talks. However, the US position in the region remains unchallenged, and despite the emerging power of Iran, there is not an imminent threat to US security that would prompt it to become a more even-handed negotiator, or to suddenly put resolving the Palestinian-Israeli dispute on top of its to-do list. Nor does Israel have an incentive to make major concessions at the present time.

It was a devastating war that pushed a defeated Anwar Sadat to reassess his policy and offer Israel peace. Israel, too, had much to gain from accepting the extended Egyptian hand. Until a major event triggers a reshuffling of priorities and policies, it doesn't matter who resides in the White House.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017