A lengthy account in The Washington Post of the Obama administration’s nearly four-year fruitless efforts to resolve the 64-year-old conflict between Palestinians and Israelis, running over four pages, carried the eye-catching headline “Where Obama failed on Middle East”. The subhead elaborated: “Despite years of the US trying a new approach, Israelis and Palestinians came no closer.”
The well-documented report, which appeared on the front page of last Sunday’s edition and continued onto three other pages — one of the longest I recall seeing in the paper since I moved to Washington in 1969 — failed to lay blame on any of the three parties — Americans, Israelis and Palestinians.
The paper’s well-documented account, authored by Scott Wilson, did not offer any suggestions on how the unyielding problem may be resolved. Most interestingly, it unexpectedly surfaced in the midst of a bitter US presidential campaign which, like all its predecessors, rarely deals with foreign policy issues.
The Americans believe that all elections are local — a point that is not acknowledged everywhere.
Yet, a significant quotation from President Barack Obama threw much light on the early position of the American leader. His response to the executive vice chairman of the influential Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, Malcolm Hoenlein, who was protesting the US view that Israel should take risks in negotiations with the Palestinians, is pace setting.
Obama’s sharp reply, described by Wilson as polite and firm, was: “Look at the past eight years, there was no space.” He was referring to the George W. Bush administration’s relationship with Israel.
“During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? When there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”
And then came Hillary Clinton’s turn. As secretary of state, she went to Israel for the first time in nearly two years after the breakdown of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in 2010 and on the heels of a short visit to Cairo where she met the new Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, who told her that Egypt will continue to adhere to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.
Her visit to Israel, at the end of a nine-state gruelling tour, is also noteworthy as it precedes another by the pro-Israel presumptive Republican presidential nominee, Mitt Romney, who is expected there in two weeks, probably fully aware that Obama has not visited Israel although he has been in Cairo during his first year in office.
Met with a hug and kiss from the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, the secretary of state, who is said to be very popular in Israel, focused primarily on Iran, an issue which is of concern to the two countries despite their differences on a solution, since Washington feels that economic sanctions on Iran will yield results. But her comments on the Palestinian-Israel conflict were run of the mill: “We remain focused on the resumption of direct negotiations, since we believe that is the only route to a lasting stable peace. To those who say the timing isn’t right, or the trust just isn’t there, I say peace won’t wait, and the responsibility is on all of us.”
Clinton met all the top leaders in Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman. She also met Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as well as Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and representative of the Quartet — the United States, Russia, the European Union and the United Nations — for the peace process.
Disappointingly and typically, there was no public mention of any of Israel’s violations, including the recent announcement that the Israeli government has “quietly” — as reported by the Associated Press — agreed to grant subsidies to build more than 500 new housing units in the West Bank, “backtracking from a promise earlier this year to deny these incentives to the [illegal] settlements”.
The secretary of state must be aware of the Palestinian stance, that they cannot resume talks with the Israelis if Israel does not stop building these colonies on occupied Palestinian land.
Palestinian officials point out that Israel’s settlement enterprise covers approximately 42 per cent of the occupied West Bank, making the region off limits to resident Palestinians, since the colonies are restricted to Jewish inhabitants.
The question is whether Obama will revive his initial policy on the Middle East if he wins the election in November or continue to maintain, as he admitted recently, that the Middle East issue is ”really hard” and leave it to the parties themselves, as he has regrettably done for some time.