US 'can't force peace in the Middle East'

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The Independent Online

Barack Obama yesterday told both sides in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict that while the US will do all it can to help bring about peace – he ordered his peace envoy, the former Senator George Mitchell, back to the region next week – the responsibility for making it happen will rest ultimately with them.

Showing off his talent once more for the stagecraft of peace-making, Mr Obama made his remarks in Germany as his host, Chancellor Angela Merkel, was preparing to take him to the former concentration camp at Buchenwald, a site that is a reminder of why Israel exists.

In Germany, Mr Obama was by turns cajoling and delicate and spoke to both sides about the steps the parties to the Middle East conflict need to take. After openly criticising Israel's refusal to end settlements during a speech to the Muslim world in Cairo on Thursday, he toned down his stance, saying he understood Israel's problems honouring that commitment that was contained in the so-called "Road Map" peace blueprint.

"I recognise the very difficult politics in Israel of getting that done and I'm very sympathetic to how hard that will be," he said at a press conference with Ms Merkel.

Yesterday he also had criticism for the Palestinians, noting, for instance, that the President Mahmoud Abbas "had made progress" on restraining anti-Israel rhetoric from his side, "but not enough". Nor had enough been done to ease Israel's security fears, he said. "We have still not seen a firm commitment from the Palestinian Authority that they can control some of the border areas that Israel is going to be concerned about if there was going to be a two-state solution," he added.

With every breath, the President was intent on showing a new commitment to ending the conflict and a fresh determination to be even-sided. Part of the purpose of his Cairo peroration was to dispel suspicions in the Arab world of an enduring US pro-Israeli bias. "The United States can't force peace upon the parties," he noted, but has "at least created the space, the atmosphere, in which talks can restart".

In an interview broadcast in the US on NBC News, Mr Obama said: "I do think, given the extraordinary moral traditions of Judaism – the potential power of empathy that arises out of having gone through such historic hardships – that will ultimately give the people of Israel the strength and purpose to seek a just and lasting peace that will involve creating two states side by side with peace and security."