A lengthy account in the Washington Post of the Obama administration’s nearly four-year fruitless effort to resolve the 64-year-old conflict between Palestinians and Israelis — running over four pages — carried the eye-catching headline, Where Obama failed on Middle East, and the subhead elaborated, Despite years of US trying new approach, Israelis and Palestinians came no closer.
The well-documented report, which appeared on the front page of last Sunday’s edition and continued on to three other pages — one of the longest I recall seeing in the paper since I moved to Washington in 1969 — failed to lay blame on any of the three parties — the Americans, Israelis and Palestinians.
And the paper’s well-documented account, authored by Scott Wilson, did not offer any suggestions on how the unyielding problem may be resolved. Most interestingly, it unexpectedly surfaced in the midst of a bitter US presidential campaign, which as all its predecessors rarely deals with foreign policy issues. The Americans believe that all elections are local — a point that is not acknowledged everywhere.
Yet, a significant quotation from President Barack Obama threw much light on the early position of the expansive American leader. His response to the executive vice-chairman of the influential Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organisations, Malcolm Hoenlein, who was protesting the US view that Israel should take risks in negotiations with the Palestinians, was pace-setting. Obama’s sharp reply, described by Wilson as polite and firm, was: “Look at the past eight years, there was no space,” he referred to the George W. Bush administration’s relationship with Israel. “During those eight years, there was no space between us and Israel, and what did we get from that? Where there is no daylight, Israel just sits on the sidelines, and that erodes our credibility with the Arab states.”
And now came Hillary Clinton’s turn. As secretary of state, she went to Israel, surprisingly for the first time in nearly two years after the breakdown of Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in 2010 and on the heels of a short visit to Cairo where she met the new Islamist President Mohammad Mursi, who told her that Egypt would continue to adhere to the Israel-Egypt peace treaty.
Her visit to Israel, at the end of a gruelling nine-state tour, is also noteworthy since it precedes another by the pro-Israel presumptive Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney, who is expected there in two weeks, probably fully aware that Obama has not visited his Israeli counterparts although he has been in Cairo during his first year in office.
Greeted with a hug and kiss from the Israeli President Shimon Peres, Clinton, who is said to be very popular in Israel, focused primarily on Iran, an issue which is of concern to the two countries despite their differences on a solution. Washington feels that the economic sanctions on Iran will yield results. But Clinton’s comments on the Palestinian-Israel conflict was run-of-the-mill fare.
“We remain focused on the resumption of direct negotiations, since we believe that is the only route to a lasting stable peace,” she said. “To those who say the timing isn’t right, or the trust just isn’t there, I say peace won’t wait, and the responsibility is on all of us.”
No public mention of violations
Clinton met all the top leaders in Israel, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Defence Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman, among others. She also met Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as well as Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and representative of the Quartet — the US, Russia,the European Union and the United Nations — on the peace process.
Disappointingly and typically, there was no public mention of any of Israel’s violations including the recent announcement that the Israeli government has ‘quietly’ — as reported by the Associated Press — agreed to grant subsidies to build more than 500 new homes in the West Bank, “backtracking from a promise earlier this year to deny these incentives to the [illegal] colonies”.
Clinton must be aware of the Palestinian stance that they cannot resume talks with the Israelis if Israel does not stop building colonies in Occupied Territories. Palestinian officials point out that Israel’s colony enterprise covers approximately 42 per cent of the West Bank, making the region off-limits to resident Palestinians.
The question that remains is, will Obama revive his initial policy on the Middle East should he win a second term next November or will he continue to maintain that the Middle East issue is ”really hard” and leave it to the parties to sort it out as he has regrettably done for some time?
George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He can be contacted at email@example.com