US foreign policy: Is Barack Obama likely to achieve anything in Israel?

Many US presidents have tried, and failed, to bring peace to the Holy Lands. So does Barack Obama, who lands on Wednesday, have any chance of succeeding where others did not? Alistair Dawber asks whether  his presence will do anything to bring peace to the Middle East

Hope and Change were the famous dual mantras of Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign – and he will need both in spades this week when he visits Israel and the Occupied West Bank if he is to meet the expectations of those who think his visit will beckon in a new era of rapprochement between the two hopelessly divided sides.

Even before Air Force One lands at Ben-Gurion airport in Tel Aviv on Wednesday, all three relevant parties – the Americans, Israelis and Palestinians – are playing down chances of a breakthrough. Speaking when Mr Obama’s trip was announced, his former Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross, said the visit was part of “a desire to connect with the Israeli public at a time when he can go and not have high expectations about having to produce something”. In other words, don’t hold your breath.

The Israeli public does not appear to have any more faith. In a poll conducted for the Ma’ariv newspaper last week, examining the attitude of Israel towards the US President, just 10 per cent said it was favourable. Asked about Mr Obama’s perceived attitude towards Israel, 38 per cent said it was outright hostile.

There is no more optimism among Palestinians. In total, Mr Obama is expected to spend fewer than five hours in the West Bank. Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority President, is expected to use his time with Mr Obama to press for the release of Palestinian prisoners held in Israeli jails. “The issue of the prisoners will be the No 1 issue during the talks with President Obama,” an official said. The peace process, and the ultimate formation of a Palestinian state is some way down the agenda, it seems.

Hamas, which is designated as a terrorist organisation by the US and much of the rest of the world, will not be granted a presidential audience. And that rankles – one Hamas source said last week that meeting only Mr Abbas would simply serve to “deepen the Palestinian division”.

But in one respect Mr Obama can hardly fail. The Israeli government, led by the hawkish Benjamin Netanyahu, has not held face-to-face talks with Mr Abbas for nearly three years. In that time, the two sides have drifted further apart and Jewish settlements in the West Bank – illegal under international law and one of the main reasons for the impasse – have continued to grow. Mr Obama managed to get Mr Netanyahu to freeze settlement building in 2010, but subsequent talks came to nothing and critics of the Israeli government now say that it is building and planning settlements at a faster rate than ever before. Indeed, the newly appointed Housing Minister, Uri Ariel, lives on a settlement.

On this issue, the Israelis and Palestinians are as far apart as ever. In response to the Palestinians winning statehood approval at the UN General Assembly in November, the Israeli government approved plans for the construction of an extra 4,500 settler homes in East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Although some have doubted whether these new houses will actually be built, and suggested that the announcement had more to do with Israel’s general election in January, the Palestinians argue that continued settlement building makes the possibility of a viable Palestinian state ever more remote.

But European diplomats in East Jerusalem have, in private, argued that 2013 presents a set of circumstances that could breathe new life into the peace process. One senior source said recently that Mr Obama’s re-election, and his appointment of John Kerry as Secretary of State – with his perceived greater interest in the region than his predecessor, Hillary Clinton – had to the potential to reignite the issue for the Americans, , especially with Mr Obama now free of future electoral constraints.

Iran will also loom large at the President’s meetings with Mr Netanyahu. Speaking to Israel’s Channel 2 News at the weekend, Mr Obama gave the sort of assurances that the Israelis would be looking for – that Washington will not allow Iran to become a nuclear power. “I have been crystal clear about my position on Iran possessing a nuclear weapon. That is a red line for us,” Mr Obama said. “It is not only something that would be dangerous for Israel. It would be dangerous for the world.

“I’ve also said there is a window – not an infinite period time, but a window of time – where we can resolve this diplomatically.”

In the game of diplomatic chess, will Mr Obama be able to extract some sort of guarantee from Mr Netahyahu in return for watching his back over Iran? It is easy to understand why Mr Obama and his team have spent much of the past few weeks since the visit was announced trying to downplay any chances of success. Even if he does manage to get the two sides back around the negotiating table, it would still leave him a long way short of the sort of (ultimately doomed) progress that has been achieved by past presidents, and even further away from an all-encompassing peace deal. Indeed, as The Independent revealed when Mr Obama’s visit to the region was first announced in February, weekly meetings are already taking place between the senior Palestinian negotiator, Saeb Erekat, and his Israeli counterpart, Yitzhak Molcho.

Even if Mr Obama extracts a deal for renewed talks, that is a very long way from any real accomplishment. Any progress will ultimately be judged on the so-called “final status” issues – among them the right of return for Palestinian refugees, and the future status of Jerusalem, which both sides claim as their capital.

Speaking to ordinary Israelis and Palestinians in Jerusalem, it is difficult to detect any optimism for the Obama visit. At the Malcha shopping centre – a favourite hangout for upwardly mobile Israelis – David Katz, a South African émigré, believed the visit represented little more than a statement. “The simple fact is that there is no agreement between the two sides. You need mutual respect and we don’t have that,” he said. “The situation is so difficult– even if you get an agreement with the PA, what about the south of Israel and Hamas? If they ever come to power in the West Bank we’ll have missiles raining down on us from there, too.”

Mr Katz’s assessment was typical of many Israelis, and its pessimistic tone was matched by Palestinians on Salaheddin Street, the main Arab thoroughfare in East Jerusalem. “I think it’s funny that he’s coming,” said Maram Mansour. “It is the latest in a long line of people saying they will do things, and nothing ever gets done. As long as you have one powerful party and one weak party, there cannot be a deal. What pressure is there on Israel? People in East Jerusalem and the West Bank live through this situation every day, but there is no pressure on the Israelis to change anything.”

With such a lack of optimism, the President will need all of his powers of persuasion and charm to make even the slightest progress. Very little hope of any real change awaits.

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