x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Obama misses another chance to lead for peace

Despite a promise to reset relations with the Arab world, President Obama missed an opportunity to lead yesterday. Washington has quick-stepped to stay abreast of the changes in the Middle East. But on the key issue – Israeli-Palestinian peace – rhetoric came up short.

At times, it seemed that Barack Obama thought that the Middle East did not include Israel or the Occupied Territories. "The United States opposes the use of violence and repression against the people of the region," the US president said last night. But there was not a word about 17 Palestinians killed earlier this week by Israeli security forces.

"We support a set of universal rights," Mr Obama said." Whether you live in Baghdad or Damascus; Sanaa or Tehran." If Gaza or Ramallah had been mentioned, more explanation would have been needed.

Again Mr Obama has missed an opportunity to lead. In recent months, Washington has quick-stepped to stay abreast of the changes in the Middle East, coming to support the popular movements that have won in Egypt and Tunisia and thrive elsewhere.

The president rightly acknowledged that this is "a path of self-determination". The political currents of the Arab Spring will flow with or without Washington's approval. Certainly, economic aid and partnership to assist economies in Egypt and Tunisia during periods of transition are welcome. Support for human rights is almost obligatory; threats against Damascus, Tripoli and Tehran true to form.

In the Middle East peace process, where the US truly can lead - where Washington has named itself mediator - it has been unwilling to act. In this speech, Mr Obama made it clear that the United States would not be a neutral broker and it would block international pressure on Israel.

He reaffirmed the 1967 borders as the outlines of two states, and that Jerusalem and the right of return need to be resolved, but refused to acknowledge why two years of negotiations have been meaningless: Israel has declined every overture while building every roadblock it could. Mr Obama's demand for renewed talks simply resets to the "status quo" that he said was untenable.

As much as any US president, Mr Obama has acknowledged the aspirations and grievances of the Palestinians, in words at least, since his landmark 2009 speech in Cairo. And last night he starkly described the reality for Israel: it has no future as a democratic state unless it changes course.

Why, then, does Mr Obama refuse to be a tough, true friend to Israel - as well as lend substance to his words towards the Palestinians? Perhaps he bides his time ahead of US elections. Perhaps he is not willing to match actions to sentiments expressed in Cairo and since.

The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose policies are flatly contradictory to a two-state solution along 1967 borders, arrives in Washington today. Three new illegal settlements were announced yesterday. In the meeting of these two leaders, we will see how far Mr Obama is willing to act to break the status quo.