Obama inspired a lot of hope in Israel. But is peace really any closer?

It's difficult to pinpoint the President's achievements in the region

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The stardust has been swept away and – if the traffic in Jerusalem is any measure – life is back to normal here after Barack Obama’s visit two weeks ago.

To say that the Israelis were excited about the US President coming is an understatement – they even had their own logo designed for the three-day tour, complete with a tasteful merger of the Israeli flag and the Stars and Stripes under the rousing banner “Unbreakable Alliance”.

Yet, for all the hullabaloo, what exactly did Mr Obama achieve here? The answer depends on who you speak to. For many Palestinians, the visit was not fruitful and, indeed, Mr Obama’s intervention was a step backwards. In 2010, the Americans persuaded the Israeli government to freeze settlement-building in the West Bank as a goodwill gesture before renewed talks, which later collapsed. The Palestinians still regard a moratorium as a pre-condition to talks, something that Mr Obama now makes clear he disagrees with. “Just get on with it” was the message from the American president during his joint press conference with a grumpy Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, in Ramallah.

The Israelis are much more upbeat, the enthusiasm – it seems – the result of Mr Obama’s barnstorming speech in Jerusalem, where he told Israelis to see the world through Palestinian eyes. Home truths like that got rave applause, and there has been much excited talk of renewed efforts at peace ever since.

But even if Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, really does want peace and is serious about sitting down with the Palestinians, there are those in the newly formed Israeli cabinet who are certainly not.

A left-wing Israeli friend of mine, a committed peacenik, reckons that Mr Netanyahu wants to use peace  talks as a means of getting what he considers undesirable elements out of his own cabinet. Real peace, and the consequential formation of a Palestinian state, is an anathema to the likes of Naftali Bennett, Israel’s new economy minister. There is no way he can stay in a government that supports an independent Palestine.

Meanwhile, John Kerry arrives in Jerusalem tomorrow for more talks with Mr Netanyahu, and in Amman on Sunday he will meet with Mr Abbas. He’s coming back again next month. But at the moment, there is nothing of substance, at least in public, that can form the basis of new discussions.

Almost everyone here wants peace, but you’ve only got to go to places like Hebron, where Palestinians are banned from walking down certain streets, and Sderot, in southern Israel, which again this week came under rocket fire from Gaza, to understand just what a huge amount of work there is to be done. It cannot yet be claimed that Mr Obama has even created an atmosphere in which negotiations can take place.

It is true that – like his election mantra in 2008 – the American president has brought hope, but hope alone is not enough to solve what has confounded American presidents since 1948. Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton got closest to a breakthrough, but both were miles ahead of where Mr Obama is now.

Time is running out. Reasonable members of the Israeli administration rightly describe Mr Abbas as a partner for peace – and, indeed, made concessions yesterday in suspending all Palestinian independence work at the UN to give Mr Kerry a chance. But the Palestinian president is 78 years old and what follows him is an unknown. If ever Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza and believes in the destruction of Israel, takes power in the West Bank, all bets are off.

Mr Kerry may achieve a breakthrough, and let’s hope so, but it is very difficult at this stage to pinpoint what Mr Obama achieved here. The smart money is on little progress being made during the next four years.

No place for a reluctant army

One of the main themes of Israel’s general election in January was about sharing the burden, and in many discussions, that manifested itself in getting Israel’s ultra-orthodox 18-year-olds to do military service like the rest of the population. A Bill is expected before the Knesset within three months.

The Haredim are exempt from most forms of military service, but there are now important members of the new government that back forcing them into fatigues; a move that will prove popular among mainstream Israelis, but will be hated by the religious community.

The problem is that the policy sounds great on a soapbox – but, as an army, what can you do with people who don’t want to be there?

The head of the Israeli Defence Forces, Benny Gantz, told a conference last month that the army would implement the country’s political will, but privately officers admit that it is a problem. There are already divisions in which many Haredim already serve, they argue, but concede that those people are volunteers, the willing.

The real issue is what happens when the religious are forced to join up. Will they refuse to carry out tasks? Drive their tanks? Even fire their weapons? Who knows. The policy may end up causing more trouble than the Bill is worth.

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