x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Obama grasps why it's wise to set the bar low

What a difference four years make. In June 2009, Barack Obama flew to Cairo, shook hands with Hosni Mubarak, and gave a stirring speech, boldly entitled A New Beginning, at Cairo University.

A skilled and powerful orator, the US president addressed himself to the whole Muslim world. He invoked America's cultural links to Islam, and his own, and called earnestly for progress towards peace between Israel and the Palestinians, whose statelessness he called "intolerable".

The speech was well-received across the Muslim world, but the hopes it created have now mostly evaporated. Three years and nine months later, a Palestinian state seems farther away than ever, and the gap between America and most of the world's Muslim states is not visibly smaller.

No wonder Mr Obama prepared for this trip by assiduously reducing expectations. With neither Palestinian nor Israeli leaders ready to seek agreement, the president signalled in advance that he would make no promises, start no talks. Instead, his handlers advised, he would urge ordinary Israelis and Palestinians to work for peace. And so he did.

The wisdom of this strategy of setting the bar low was revealed on Friday. Mr Obama's visit acquired a positive image when Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, unexpectedly apologised to the government and people of Turkey. The call will go far to healing the bilateral rift that has festered since the 2010 raid in which Israeli commandos killed nine Turks on board a peace flotilla headed for Gaza.

Mr Netanyahu does not apologise readily for anything, and US officials quietly claimed credit for encouraging his call. But how? The US has been unable or unwilling to push Mr Netanyahu to do anything he doesn't want to do. And Israel certainly has its own interest in smoothing Turkey's ruffled feathers.

On the Palestinian issue Mr Obama, left with no approach except going over the heads of Israeli and Palestinian leaders, did so with his customary rhetorical élan. His message - "just as Israelis built a state in their homeland, Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land" - won loud applause from his audience of Israeli students, and across the country.

Sadly, it might be years before those students have the power to affect decision-making in the Knesset and beyond. Can the Palestinians - and the rest of the world - wait that long?