Leading Article: A drive for Middle East peace that must not be written off

The US President's patience and determination deserve a response
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The Independent Online

The Obama administration is easing itself into the summer recess with that least relaxing of undertakings: a push on Middle East peace. No fewer than four senior officials are currently in the region, starting with the special envoy, George Mitchell, whose itinerary also includes Syria, Egypt and Bahrain. The defence secretary, Robert Gates, the National Security Adviser, James Jones, and the special envoy to the Gulf States, Dennis Ross, are also passing through. If Israel's Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, did not fully grasp President Obama's message when he was in Washington two months ago, he must surely realise the seriousness of it now.

The message comes in three parts. The first is that there must be a Palestinian state. The second is that Israel must halt all "settlement activity", not only as part of any agreement, but as an advance guarantee that Israel wants a deal. And the third is that, if it is to last, any agreement must be accepted – and preferably underwritten – by the countries of the region, as well as Palestinian leaders and the United States.

Mr Netanyahu has difficulties with the first two, and reservations about the last, if it entails anything in the way of concessions to Syria – or worse, from his point of view – Iran. Even if he were inclined to be more flexible than at present appears, his room for manoeuvre is limited by the nature of his coalition. Nor should the problem of a Palestinian negotiating partner be underestimated. When Israelis ask how any agreement can be reached when such a gulf divides the Hamas leadership in Gaza from the Fatah government of President Mahmoud Abbas in the West Bank, this is more than a debating point, it is real.

All of which is why so many, both in the United States and in Israel, are already dismissing Barack Obama's diplomatic push as doomed, even if they cannot quite bring themselves to describe it as a foolhardy waste of effort. In the recent past, Middle East peace has been a second-term presidential ambition, not one on which early political capital should be lavished. Admirably, Mr Obama has refused to be deterred.

From his first initiatives towards Iran, through his Cairo speech to the Islamic world, to the latest dispatch of envoys, he has insisted on seeing the region as a whole, and the Israel-Palestinian conundrum in its wider context. And he is right to do so, just as he is right to treat the possibility of a peace deal in the region as a US policy priority. At least part – though by no means all – of the reason why his two predecessors at the White House failed, was because they turned their attention to the region too late. They ran out of political capital and they ran out of time. Mr Obama's hand is strengthened because he still has plenty of both.

Not everything has gone his way. The fall-out from the Iranian election leaves his olive branch to Tehran in limbo. Mr Netanyahu, a grudging convert to the two-state solution, is stalling on the settlements issue, which is anyway more complex than sometimes appreciated. His fragile conservative coalition is hardly the Israeli government this US administration would have wished for. Doggedly, though, Mr Obama is pressing on. He has calmly recognised that Iran needs more time. He has advised Israel against precipitate action to pre-empt Tehran's nuclear programme. He has refused to take "No" for an answer on the settlements. Talks in and around Israel go on. It is an assured start and one that deserves not to be written off prematurely.