Unless the American President involves himself directly in proceedings, the accumulated wisdom of more than six decades of would-be Middle Eastern peacemaking holds that no deal can ever be struck. With his meeting on Monday with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, and the similar exercise planned in a fortnight’s time with the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, Barack Obama is now doing precisely that. But, like his predecessors, he is pushing at a door that seems forever locked.
For more than a year, Secretary of State John Kerry has been pressing for a new peace initiative. The idea this time is for a “framework” agreement between the sides, to be reached by the end of April. Under this approach – whose practical difference from “road maps” and other previous diplomatic formulations is not entirely clear – Israelis and Palestinians would agree on the broad goals of a final two-state settlement. The fine print would be worked out later, away from the glare of the media spotlight.
But as the deadline approaches, there is no sign of progress, nor even of goodwill gestures to justify a little optimism. In his remarks at the White House, echoed in his speech yesterday to the pro-Israel lobby group Aipac, Mr Netanyahu predictably blamed the Palestinians, and their refusal to recognise Israel as the legitimate nation-state of the Jewish people. Mr Abbas, when he visits the White House on 17 March, will be asking Mr Obama how he can be expected to make concessions when Israeli settlement-building on the West Bank, the Palestinians’ constant grievance, only grows. Figures this week show that such activity, far from diminishing, is now at a 13-year high.
Mr Obama, like previous US presidents, again warned Mr Netanyahu that time was running out. He pointed to the likelihood of “international fallout” – further boycotts, that is – against Israel if this new initiative failed, that the US could be powerless to stave off. But the Israeli Prime Minister appears unmoved.
In the meantime, a familiar stumbling block remains and a new complication has emerged. The former is Iran’s nuclear programme, over which Israel and the US are as divided as ever. Mr Netanyahu sees Tehran’s seemingly more moderate stance as a cynical charm offensive, and remains utterly opposed to November’s interim deal between Iran and the West – in his words “a historic mistake” that could threaten Israel’s very existence
The new potential obstacle is the crisis in Ukraine. Middle East peacemaking and Russia’s seizure of Crimea might seem unrelated. They are not. Confrontation with the West merely increases the likelihood that Russia will become more obstructive, both in its support for President Assad and in the search for a long-term nuclear deal with Tehran. Neither development would make Mr Netanyahu more amenable to a two-state settlement with the Palestinians.
There is one final item of accumulated wisdom about Middle East peacemaking. Only the US, it is said, can exert effective pressure on Israel. But the last thing Mr Obama wants, as he takes on Vladimir Putin, is an additional quarrel with a close ally like Israel. One wishes Mr Kerry well. But his chances of succeeding where all before him have failed look dim, indeed.