Arab News (Editorial)
January 25, 2010 - 1:00am§ion=0&article=131768&d=25&m=1&y=2010

US President Barack Obama hit the mark when he acknowledged that the Middle East peace process has not moved forward; that “we overestimated our ability to persuade” the Palestinians and Israelis “to start engaging in a meaningful conversation;” and that “what we did this year didn’t produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted.” But in the Time magazine interview marking the first anniversary of his inauguration, Obama’s next comment was odd: “If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”

The Palestinian-Israeli problem is over 60 years old, has been impervious to numerous peace initiatives, has withstood multiple changes of leaderships, and Obama was somehow caught off guard?

At the UN General Assembly last September, Obama felt it necessary to tell his audience that he was not naive about how hard it would be to make peace in the Middle East. But perhaps he was. His speech in Cairo in June, aimed at Muslims around the world, for a while induced a state of near euphoria among observers who had been fierce critics of the foreign policy of President George W. Bush. He repeated his support for Palestinian aspirations for freedom. And he repeated that America “does not accept the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements.”

Both Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated unequivocally at the time that Israel should stop building settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. The reality with which Obama and Clinton are grappling, though, is that Israel continues to expand its settlements. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has given every indication that he is in no mood to stop the outposts. This is bad. What is worse is that the Obama administration is yet to give any indication that it can or would make him stop. A settlement freeze, we are now told by Obama’s Middle East envoy George Mitchell, was never an American precondition for talks between Israel and Palestinians.

Because of this unprecedented comedown, one completely rejected by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, several months could produce only a brief, cold public handshake at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel in Manhattan between Abbas and Netanyahu.

Obama obviously misread the scale of the difficulties. He admirably plunged into the Middle East faster than any of his predecessors and certainly, no reasonable person should have expected a solution in his first year. But Obama opened his push for peace with calls for a complete halt on Israeli settlement building in the West Bank without anticipating that Israel would not deliver. The result is Abbas’ recent, blunt rejection of the latest Mitchell shuttle to resume peace talks without an Israeli settlement freeze.

The Middle East, as Obama told Time, is “as intractable a problem as you get.” Never were there truer words but Obama overestimated the problem as well as himself. He is good at making speeches but his fine words have not been translated into concrete action.

The belief is that Obama remains committed to trying to broker a Mideast deal but it’s unclear what he could try next. One thing is sure: These are serious times. It’s not the time for rhetorical flights of fancy. Obama has suffered because of the expectations his own words have aroused.


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