The simple truth of efforts to reach peace in the Middle East is that pessimism has so often proved justified. So it will have come as no surprise to most observers – and certainly any observer in the region – that the first meeting this week of the new United States President, Barack Obama, and the even newer Prime Minister of Israel, Binyamin Netanyahu, produced no diplomatic breakthrough.
President Obama reiterated his belief that the only future lies in a two-state solution, ending Israeli settlement building and giving the Palestinians a country of their own. Prime Minister Netanyahu responded by avoiding all talk of settlements and a two-state agreement, instead declaring only that he is ready to talk to the Palestinian Authority on economic and security matters and reiterating his belief that no security can be achieved in the Middle East until the question of Iran's nuclear ambition has been confronted. In matters of tone, the US-Israeli relationship remains one of absolute faith. In matters of policy, the two leaders have agreed to differ.
This may have proved disappointing to those who had hoped for an early breakthrough in moves towards peace, or to those who might have hoped for some grand battle of wills. But it should not be. What the Middle East is witnessing is a new US administration determined on making peace in the region a priority, but doing so in a novel and more measured way than any of its predecessors.
Instead of concentrating on the specifics of the Israeli-Palestinian relationship, President Obama has signed up to the idea of a comprehensive peace as suggested by the Arab League in 2002, under which the whole Arab world would agree to recognise Israel on condition that it retreated to its pre-1967 borders. The drawbacks are glaring. It leaves unaddressed the problem of the Israeli settlements on the West Bank and the question of the right of return for the Palestinian diaspora. But it has the huge benefit of enveloping the most intractable bilateral difficulties in a wider agreement that could satisfy Israel's overriding security concerns and the Arab desire to settle the Palestinian question once and for all.
This week's Obama-Netanyahu summit produced no breakthrough but it did show a US President determined not to be diverted from his course of building up to a regional peace, including a new pact with Iran and better relations with Syria. Next week he meets the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas, and the Egyptian President, Hosni Mubarak, in Washington. The following week, President Obama goes to Egypt to make his first major speech in an Arab country.
The pessimists may predict another peace initiative that will fail. But, for the moment, the world has a new US President determined to make a difference and with a strategy to achieve it. We should all applaud him as he tries.