x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Obama's stalled Middle East peace process

Having chided his predecessor George W Bush for neglecting to seriously address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the current US president has little to show for his efforts after one year in office, having made the issue one of his top foreign policy priorities. This week the Obama administration's Middle East peace envoy George Mitchell visited the region once again yet made little progress in getting peace talks restarted.

Having chided his predecessor George W Bush for neglecting to seriously address the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the current US president after one year in office, having made the issue one of his top foreign policy priorities, has nevertheless made no significant advances. The Los Angeles Times reported: "As US envoy George J Mitchell wrapped up his Mideast trip Friday with little to show for his efforts to kick-start peace talks, the Obama administration was signaling a growing pessimism that Israelis and Palestinians would return to negotiations any time soon. "In his first visit since November, Mitchell met separately with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. But officials on both sides said little progress was made toward restarting talks that collapsed a year ago." In an interview with Time magazine, the US President Barack Obama acknowledged that during his first year in office he had not been able to advance the Middle East peace process. "I think it's fair to say that for all our efforts at early engagement, it is not where I want it to be," Mr Obama told Joe Klein. "Both sides - the Israelis and the Palestinians - have found that the political environment, the nature of their coalitions or the divisions within their societies, were such that it was very hard for them to start engaging in a meaningful conversation. And I think that we overestimated our ability to persuade them to do so when their politics ran contrary to that. From [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas' perspective, he's got Hamas looking over his shoulder and, I think, an environment generally within the Arab world that feels impatient with any process. "And on the Israeli front - although the Israelis, I think, after a lot of time showed a willingness to make some modifications in their policies, they still found it very hard to move with any bold gestures. And so what we're going to have to do - I think it is absolutely true that what we did this year didn't produce the kind of breakthrough that we wanted, and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high. Moving forward, though, we are going to continue to work with both parties to recognise what I think is ultimately their deep-seated interest in a two-state solution in which Israel is secure and the Palestinians have sovereignty and can start focusing on developing their economy and improving the lives of their children and grandchildren." Echoing the US president, the US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, speaking at a joint press conference with the British Foreign Secretary David Miliband, said: "The United States, the UK, the EU, the Arab League, everyone can work together to try to create the conditions for a resolution of the outstanding issues between the Israelis and the Palestinians, but at the end of the day, they must make that decision. "So we are going to continue to do everything we can to create an environment in which that is possible. We have urged both the Israelis and the Palestinians to get back to the negotiating table and to start hashing out the very difficult but, we believe, solvable problems that stand in the way of security for the state of Israel and a state for the Palestinians." Meanwhile, the Associated Press reported a further obstacle to the revival of peace talks: Israel insists that it would need to maintain troops on the West Bank's border with Jordan even if a deal is reached. "Palestinians rejected Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's demand, made just before U.S. envoy George Mitchell arrived in Israel on Wednesday. Mitchell has been labouring without success for a year to get both sides back to the negotiating table, and Netanyahu's new demand made his mission even more formidable. "Netanyahu said Israel must maintain a presence 'on the eastern side of a prospective Palestinian state' to keep militants from using the territory to launch rockets at Israel's heartland." In a commentary appearing in Ynet, Orly Azoulay wrote: "After a year in office, Obama looks back at the Middle East with anger. "From his point of view, there is in fact nobody to talk to because in the Middle East there are no brave leaders able to take bold decisions. He feels betrayed and disappointed. "The problem is that the leader of the world's greatest superpower cannot afford this kind of luxury. "Instead of patronising and whining like a pampered kid that all the efforts he invested were in vain, Obama could have pounded the table and do what the world expected him to do: Take initiative, grab the refuseniks by the hair, and not let go until they say 'yes'. "An American president has an impressive toolbox available to him, yet Obama has not yet used any of these tools. He has not lifted the diplomatic hammer or threatened anyone with a political axe. He did not even do the minimum pledged by his aides when they entered the White House: Openly present a detailed American peace plan, and then exert intense pressures on all sides to tow the line." In Beirut's Daily Star, Rami G Khouri wrote: "In the face of this erratic track record by Obama, what have the Arabs and Israelis done in the past year, other than oppose, delay, irritate and obstruct the US president? If Obama gets a B for effort and a D for achievement, Arabs and Israelis probably deserve an F for their collective failure to contribute meaningfully to resolving their own conflict. "The Israelis not only refused to comply with the American demand to freeze settlements, they also pursued several other destructive, predatory or illegal and provocative actions: they expanded some settlements, house demolitions, building permit approvals and land confiscations in the West Bank, Arab East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights; they continued to steal Arab water above and below ground; they maintained a near-starvation siege on the Gaza Strip and kept killing or jailing Gaza and West Bank Palestinians at will; they continued their over-flights in Lebanon; and, they maintained Apartheid-like controls over Palestinians living in the lands occupied in 1967. All in all, a pretty normal Israeli year. "The Arabs, for their part, have been on diplomatic leave of absence this year, it seems, perhaps still celebrating the Obama victory and anticipating that the young president would save them. I cannot think of a single meaningful or constructive diplomatic move by the Arab world since the Obama election - not on Israel and Palestine, not on terrorism, not on Iran, not on weapons of mass destruction proliferation, not on Iraq, not on Sudan, not on Somalia, not on Yemen, not on Algeria, not on democratisation and human rights, and not on Lebanon (well, perhaps we can celebrate that the Syrians and Saudis started talking again)."

pwoodward@thenational.ae