Middle East peace process: Obama talks of a ‘pause’ to US push for Israel-Palestine treaty following Fatah pact with Hamas

Abbas’s pact with Hamas is the last straw as President surrenders to reality in the latest US foreign-policy setback

US Editor

Just as so many of his predecessors had before him, President Obama acknowledged yesterday that, try as it might, the United States still cannot find a way to corral Israel and the Palestinians into an enduring peace treaty, creating two states living in peace, side by side. He did not close the door completely but spoke of a “pause”.

It was a surrender to realities on the ground that no one – not even his Secretary of State, John Kerry, who had been doggedly (arguably blindly) leading the latest US-sponsored effort since last July – could ignore. Away from the negotiation table, both sides had been taking steps that seemed almost designed to make a deal impossible.

The final fatal blow was Wednesday’s announcement by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas of a reconciliation pact between his Fatah government with the Islamist Hamas movement, which both the US and the EU consider a terrorist group. Fatah controls the parts of the West Bank not directly occupied by Israel, while Hamas has sway over Gaza. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responded swiftly by withdrawing from the peace talks.

While the unity deal was a surprise, hopes for the peace talks had already been dimming. Mr Kerry, who invested large amounts of energy and his prestige in the project, was struggling to persuade the two sides to extend the talks beyond a previously agreed 29 April deadline for a conclusion. The Palestinians had angered Israel by applying to join a series of international bodies and treaties, against the advice also of the US, while for its part Israel had destabilised the process by baulking on prisoner release promises and continuing with settlement construction on occupied land.

“There may come a point at which there just needs to be a pause and both sides need to look at the alternatives,” Mr Obama conceded to reporters on the first day of a state visit to South Korea. “What we haven’t seen is the political will to make tough decisions, frankly, and that’s been true on both sides.”

Mr Obama made the usual never-say-never commentary, but made clear that America’s leverage has limits. “There’s one door,” he said. “That is the two parties making some very difficult political compromises in order to secure the future of both Israelis and Palestinians for future generations. We have not yet seen them walk through that door. We will continue to encourage them to walk through that door. Do I expect that they will walk through that door next week? Next month? Or even in the course of the next six months? No.”

The halting of the talks marks another in a series of foreign policy setbacks for Mr Obama’s administration. He left Japan yesterday without a hoped-for trade deal; beyond that his mission to “reset” relations with Russia is in tatters, while blood continues to flow in Syria. Oddly the only bright spot seems to be progress towards a nuclear deal with Iran.

For now, the chief US Middle East peace negotiator, Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel, will stay in the region. And the State Department, like Mr Obama, has yet to declare the patient 100 per cent dead. “Choices need to be made by both parties, and we’ll see what happens in the days ahead,” said Jen Psaki, a State Department spokeswoman.

Mr Kerry had been warned by many that America was probably chasing a mirage once again. He has so far kept his public reaction to the Israeli withdrawal to a minimum. “We will never give up our hope or our commitment for the possibilities for peace,” he said at the State Department. “We believe it is the only way to go. But right now ... it’s at a very difficult point and the leaders themselves have to make decisions. It’s up to them.”

Particularly problematic was the perception that this most recent drive for peace was being driven almost entirely top-down by the US, with little to suggest that either of the parties on the ground necessarily wanted it. There was also the growing sense that ending the conflict between them was no longer as key to the region as it once was.

“It needs to be acknowledged that the Israel-Palestinian dispute no longer occupies centre stage in the Middle East,” Richard Haas, the president of the Council on Foreign Relations, wrote last week in The American Interest, before the Fatah-Hamas rapprochement. “The emergence of a separate Palestinian state would not affect the dynamics of what is taking place in Syria or Egypt or Iraq... it has become more a local than a regional dispute.”

But former Congressman Robert Wexler, who now heads the Daniel Abraham Centre for Middle East Peace, predicted that Mr Kerry and Mr Obama won’t give up entirely just yet on what had arguably been the most substantive effort by the US to forge an agreement since Bill Clinton was president. “I think they will work very diligently to find the opportunity to allow Israel and the Palestinian Authority to get back to the negotiating table,” he told NBC yesterday. “The great secret was that in fact progress was being made.”

Mr Obama, who in his first term paid scant attention to the conflict, intimated that Mr Kerry’s effort had been a case of nothing ventured nothing gained. It had always been a “long shot”, he insisted. “I make no apologies.”

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