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Netanyahu and Abbas offer little hope for future peace

Speeches at the UN show the ever-widening gap between the two sides in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with the Israeli leader focusing on Iran's nuclear threat while the PA president complains of illegal settlements. Analysis by Hugh Naylor in Jerusalem

JERUSALEM // The Palestinians and Israelis diverge on almost every issue but what they do have in common is that they have done little to satisfy the administration of Barack Obama.

In his address at the United Nations yesterday, Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president, called for world recognition of a Palestinian state while Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, demanded firmer international pressure on Iran.

While the speeches in New York covered familiar ground, little has changed since they spoke last year - a testament to how low expectations of a resolution to their stubborn conflict have sunk.

Instead, the leaders from the Middle East focused on issues that could have implications for Mr Obama's re-election campaign.

Mr Abbas, announcing his UN bid again, ticked off a litany of grievances against Israel and its occupation of the Palestinian territories. He then made a familiar warning about the threat to a Palestinian state in the face of Israeli settlement expansion, saying that "there is still a chance - maybe the last - to save the two-state solution and to salvage peace".

Mr Netanyahu, for his part, invoked the Holocaust, Biblical Jewish history and called on the world to draw "red lines" on Iran. He even held up a chart showing a cartoon-looking bomb and drew a red line just below the fuse.

He made no mention of a future Palestinian state.

The Obama administration's early efforts to resolve the impasse collapsed two years ago, when the direct talks it pushed hard to restart broke down a mere three weeks after resuming. Then came the Arab Spring, which all but pushed reconciliation between Ramallah and Tel Aviv off the White House's agenda. That is where the issue has remained.

During his speech on Wednesday, the US president gave only passing mention to the subject, offering stock phrase remarks such as "America will walk alongside all who are prepared to make that journey" and the "road is hard, but the destination is clear".

Both Mr Netanyahu and Mr Abbas, meanwhile, seem to be on a collision course with Mr Obama.

Last year, Mr Obama thwarted the Palestinian leader's attempt for statehood recognition in the Security Council. Although he probably cannot stop a similar Palestinian resolution from earning enough support in the General Assembly, the US leader will certainly not be pleased with the move or as willing to provide the cash-strapped Palestinian leadership with the some US$500 million (Dh1.8bn) a year in aid.

Also of concern for the Obama administration has been Mr Netanyahu's insistence that the US takes a stronger line against Tehran's suspected nuclear weapons project.

The Israeli leader has featured on US talk shows to indirectly criticise the US president's policy on the issue and has unabashedly thrown his weight behind Mr Obama's Republican challenger in the upcoming presidential election, Mitt Romney.

Some saw Mr Netanyahu's speech as trying to affect the election's outcome.

"It's almost as if Bibi is a partisan Republican hoping to elect Romney," Blake Hounshell, the managing editor of Foreign Policy, a US magazine, wrote on Twitter, referring to the Israeli leader by his nickname.

Relations have soured to such an extent that Mr Obama has refused to meet his Israeli counterpart during the latter's visit to the United States. Concern has mounted among Israelis and its allies in Washington of lasting damage between the allies.

The Obama Administration prefers allowing diplomacy and sanctions to take effect before resorting to an attack.

"Responsibility for the dispute with the United States on the Iranian issue, the stalled peace process and the coming confrontation in the territories rests on Netanyahu's shoulders," Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, wrote in an editorial yesterday, referring to potential Palestinian-Israeli violence without an exit to their political impasse.

At least in terms of the peace process, a bridging of the two leaders' differences seemingly relies heavily on Israeli settlements. And persuading Mr Netanyahu to halt their construction has been a key demand for a Palestinian return to the negotiating table and explains why Mr Abbas, facing relentless settlement expansion, has opted for statehood recognition instead.

Little from yesterday's speeches suggested a change to this scenario.

hnaylor@thenational.ae

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