Donald Macintyre: Obama can't afford to sit this one out

Israel's Zionist left is deeply disappointed with the US and EU's failure to intervene

Share
Related Topics

Some time ago, the Governor of the Bank of Israel, Stanley Fischer, remarked to the Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, that future growth could rise to 5 per cent but that, if peace was reached with the Palestinians, it could be 7 per cent. If growth was going to reach 5 per cent, Mr Netanyahu is said to have replied, there was no need for peace.

Even assuming Mr Netanyahu was joking, the story helps to explain why the latest deadlock is less than traumatic for the Israeli leadership. The security threat from the West Bank is – for now – at an historically low level; Mr Netanyahu's success in seeing off the more far-reaching US demands for a settlement freeze has not dented his domestic popularity, as many predicted it would. And for a large body of Israeli opinion it is both Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas's fault, and his problem, that he has not so far yielded to concerted US pressure to restart the talks which Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly insisted he is ready for.

That deadlock has now been formalised, so to speak, by President Barack Obama's stark admission to Time magazine that the US had failed to achieve in the Middle East "the kind of breakthrough that we wanted", and that if it had anticipated the "political problems" it "might not have raised expectations as high". While Mr Obama was careful to stress that efforts would continue, the remarks have been widely read in the region as implying that, for now, he has other more pressing matters to attend to.

The best that can be said about this is that, by owning up to the administration's own mishandling of the issue, the President has helped to protect Mr Abbas from taking sole blame. But behind the scenes there has been considerable pressure from the US on its European allies to join the calls on Mr Abbas to get back into talks, as he has – so far – declined to do in his discussions with Mr Obama's envoy George Mitchell. Both Mr Mitchell himself and that veteran of the failed Camp David talks in 2000, Dennis Ross, have been urging friendly diplomats to persuade Mr Abbas that he has nothing to lose by putting Mr Netanyahu to the test.

But most of the major allies have been slow to respond, largely because they felt some sympathy with Mr Abbas's view that he did indeed have a lot to lose. 2009 was a miserable year for the Palestinian President. The US issued an explicit demand for a total settlement freeze. But then it notably failed to back it up with the threat of sanctions with which the first George Bush brought Yitzhak Shamir to the table in 1991. And while Mr Netanyahu did – eventually – agree to temporary "restraint" in the West Bank, the overall result was a victory for the Israeli Prime Minister which left Mr Abbas badly exposed.

Then Washington gravely endangered Mr Abbas's presidency by demanding he block a UN move to endorse the Goldstone report on Israel's military offensive in Gaza. Finally it exercised little to no real pressure on Israel over the increasingly combustible issue of Jewish settlement in Arab East Jerusalem – which Mr Netanyahu has repeatedly refused to halt. Indeed while Mr Obama did refer last week to the divisions both sides face in their constituencies, his diplomats seem to have had a good deal more understanding of Mr Netanyahu's perceived, and arguably lesser, political difficulties than Mr Abbas's.

The formal position was that Mr Netanyahu was agreeing to talks without preconditions, and that Mr Abbas (demanding the total freeze he had thought he had US backing for) was not. But with Hamas waiting to pounce on any further fruitless surrender to the US, Mr Abbas's reluctance to negotiate, without any real earnest of good faith, with a man who showed every sign of meaning it when he said that Jerusalem would remain undivided, who demanded that the Palestinians should not just recognise Israel but recognise it as a "Jewish state", and who said that Israeli troops would control the eastern borders of any future Palestine, was understandable.

The danger now is that Washington will slip into the old comfort zone of "a plague on both sides". Last November, Thomas Friedman, who has played golf with the US President, wrote a New York Times column approvingly quoting James Baker's old, impatient, adage to both sides: "When you're serious, give us a call." There was an echo of this in Hillary Clinton's remark last week that in the end "this has to be between the Israelis and the Palestinians".

Actually, it doesn't. One of the refreshing aspects of the administration's language in those hopeful days last year was its repeated emphasis on the "American interest" in securing a solution in the Middle East. Mr Obama seemed to understand, as many of his predecessors had apparently failed to do, first that the conflict had a direct impact on the US's own security, if only by providing its real enemies with a casus belli; and secondly that Israel, and the Palestinians would not achieve a lasting peace on their own. Yet a year after his inauguration you only have to talk to Israeli activists on what could broadly be called the Zionist left to realise how deep is the disappointment at the failure of the US and the EU to launch the decisive third-party intervention that they are convinced is the only hope.

The greatest delusion would be that events can somehow stand still. Maybe the alternative to real progress is not yet a fresh outbreak of violence. But the facts on the ground speak for themselves; certainly the once unthinkable one that Defence Minister Ehud Barak (who still happens to be leader of the Israeli Labour Party) was last week able to confer national university status on Ariel College, in the heart of a Jewish settlement in the West Bank deemed illegal by the international community. It is a small, but symbolic, example of how entrenched the occupation has become in much of the Israeli political psyche.

Against this bleak background, if the Europeans have a duty, it is to remind – and on this issue it is sadly less credible – Washington that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is still too important to be left to the Israelis and Palestinians to solve.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Developer

£16000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is a world leader ...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive - OTE £25,000

£13000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Would you like to be part of a ...

Recruitment Genius: 1st Line Technical Support Engineer

£19000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This IT and Telecoms company ar...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Manager - Visitor Fundraising

£23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The Visitor Fundraising Team is responsi...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Daily catch-up: the SNP’s ‘fundamental problem’, says Corbyn, is that too many people support it

John Rentoul
An investor looks at an electronic board showing stock information at a brokerage house in Shanghai  

China has exposed the fatal flaws in our liberal economic order

Ann Pettifor
The Silk Roads that trace civilisation: Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places

The Silk Roads that trace civilisation

Long before the West rose to power, Asian pathways were connecting peoples and places
House of Lords: Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled

The honours that shame Britain

Outcry as donors, fixers and MPs caught up in expenses scandal are ennobled
When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race

'When it comes to street harassment, we need to talk about race'

Why are black men living the stereotypes and why are we letting them get away with it?
International Tap Festival: Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic

International Tap Festival comes to the UK

Forget Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers - this dancing is improvised, spontaneous and rhythmic
War with Isis: Is Turkey's buffer zone in Syria a matter of self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Turkey's buffer zone in Syria: self-defence – or just anti-Kurd?

Ankara accused of exacerbating racial division by allowing Turkmen minority to cross the border
Doris Lessing: Acclaimed novelist was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show

'A subversive brothel keeper and Communist'

Acclaimed novelist Doris Lessing was kept under MI5 observation for 18 years, newly released papers show
Big Blue Live: BBC's Springwatch offshoot swaps back gardens for California's Monterey Bay

BBC heads to the Californian coast

The Big Blue Live crew is preparing for the first of three episodes on Sunday night, filming from boats, planes and an aquarium studio
Austin Bidwell: The Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England with the most daring forgery the world had known

Victorian fraudster who shook the Bank of England

Conman Austin Bidwell. was a heartless cad who carried out the most daring forgery the world had known
Car hacking scandal: Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked

Car hacking scandal

Security designed to stop thieves hot-wiring almost every modern motor has been cracked
10 best placemats

Take your seat: 10 best placemats

Protect your table and dine in style with a bold new accessory
Ashes 2015: Alastair Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Cook not the only one to be caught in The Oval mindwarp

Aussie skipper Michael Clarke was lured into believing that what we witnessed at Edgbaston and Trent Bridge would continue in London, says Kevin Garside
Can Rafael Benitez get the best out of Gareth Bale at Real Madrid?

Can Benitez get the best out of Bale?

Back at the club he watched as a boy, the pressure is on Benitez to find a winning blend from Real's multiple talents. As La Liga begins, Pete Jenson asks if it will be enough to stop Barcelona
Athletics World Championships 2015: Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson heptathlon rivalry

Beijing witnesses new stage in the Jess and Kat rivalry

The last time the two British heptathletes competed, Ennis-Hill was on the way to Olympic gold and Johnson-Thompson was just a promising teenager. But a lot has happened in the following three years
Jeremy Corbyn: Joining a shrewd operator desperate for power as he visits the North East

Jeremy Corbyn interview: A shrewd operator desperate for power

His radical anti-austerity agenda has caught the imagination of the left and politically disaffected and set a staid Labour leadership election alight
Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief: Defender of ancient city's past was killed for protecting its future

Isis executes Palmyra antiquities chief

Robert Fisk on the defender of the ancient city's past who was killed for protecting its future