To distance himself from the previous President, George Bush, the then Senator Barack Obama insisted during the 2008 presidential campaign that bringing peace to the Holy Land would be one of his main goals from his very first day of office. And he kept his promise, moving straight away to relaunch peace talks.
However, he was unable to make good on his commitment to bring a more balanced attitude towards the conflict. Netanyahu refused to comply with the condition that he freeze the construction of new settlements. The new US president let him get away with this, thus losing his credibility as a mediator in the eyes of Mahmoud Abbas and ruining the possibility of entering into substantive negotiations concerning the main issues in dispute.
Since then, instead of seeking a conclusive solution, the White House has restricted itself to managing the conflict, aiming to avoid an outbreak of violence. And all this without moving an inch from the traditional US position of unconditional support for the Jewish state – it is not clear whether this position reflects their real view of the conflict or is an exercise in pragmatism. With his political capital rapidly evaporating due to the economic crisis, and under attack from Republicans who accuse him of being lukewarm in his defence of Israel, Obama has often taken a defensive stance on this issue.
Given this situation, the big question is whether during his second term Obama will return to the ambitions of the start of his presidency, and try to go down in history as the person who found the elusive solution to the Middle East conflict. Right now, with Mahmoud Abbas completely lacking in legitimacy, and following the victory of a hawkish Netanyahu in the last Israeli parliamentary elections, the prospects of a peace deal seem to be little more than an illusion.
However, at least in terms of rhetoric, the US president has involved himself in the Israeli-Palestinian imbroglio. Last March, he made his first visit to Israel and the occupied territories since his election in 2008. Amidst renewed vows of eternal friendship between the US and Israel, his visit was well received by the Israeli population. Not only was this reflected in the media, but an opinion poll showed a significant rise among those Israelis who saw the occupant of the White House as an honest broker. Thus, at the beginning of his second term Obama can boast an increase in his political capital within the Jewish state. The same cannot be said, however, of the Palestinian side.
The brand new Secretary of State, John Kerry, has also dedicated part of his time since assuming this position — in which he replaced Hillary Clinton — to relaunching peace talks between the Israeli government and the leader of the Palestinian National Authority. The negotiations have been on hold for more than three years due to Netanyahu’s rejection of the demand that he freeze the construction of settlements. Given the failure of its previous attempt at negotiations, this time Washington is trying to put aside the issue of settlements, pressurising the Palestinian leaders to begin the talks with yet another concession – despite the fact that, for years, this has been a non-negotiable precondition for the Palestinian leadership.
No one in the region seems to believe that the initiative has any chance of success. This opinion is probably shared by the State Department. The gesture is understood rather as the desire to show that the administration at least made an attempt, in the belief that, however small it is, the hope that an agreement can be reached will avoid another conflagration like the one which occurred in Gaza at the end of last year.
And just in case the nature of the conflict had not already made it insoluble decades ago, its evolution over recent years has made any solution even more complicated. The gradual rightward shift of the political map in Israel, the bitter divisions among Palestinians, and the growing number of settlers even raise questions as to whether the standard terms of reference for resolving the conflict — on the basis on the creation of two states — are still viable. In fact, support is steadily growing for a single state solution, although this is still a minority viewpoint.
The Arab Spring has also changed the terms of the conflict, and this could lead to its being re-evaluated by the international community. The rise to power of moderate Islamism in Egypt has allowed Hamas to break out of the international isolation imposed by Washington. In this new political situation we will have to see how far the new displays of solidarity with the Palestinians from other Arab countries become a reality, and if that forces Israel to change a strategy which until now has been based on a military approach to the dispute.
Published in the 16th issue of ICIP‘s magazine