Leading article: Time for action, Mr Obama

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The Independent Online

Two steps forward, two steps back. Middle East diplomacy often resembles the world of Lewis Carroll; no matter how fast the Red Queen runs, she stays put. Likewise, no wonder most people were not holding their breath for Barack Obama's White House meeting with Israel's leader, Benjamin Netanyahu, yesterday. How can anyone still feel optimism about a peace process that has consumed so much energy and yielded so little? It was clear this time that Mr Netanyahu would get a red carpet. In March, Mr Obama barely put out a welcome mat, because he was so deeply displeased by Israel's humiliation of his Vice-President, Joe Biden, who had recently arrived in Israel just in time to find that the government had signed off a new round of Jewish settlements in occupied East Jerusalem.

The log jam has since shifted, a little. Israel has partially lifted its blockade of Gaza, though not as completely as it should, and has put a settlement freeze in place on the West Bank, although it does not include East Jerusalem. Meanwhile, US support for new sanctions on Israel's nemesis, Iran, has bought breathing space, delaying a potentially catastrophic Israeli strike on Iran aimed at destroying Tehran's capacity to build nuclear weapons.

That does not mean the omens are propitious for a substantive push towards a two-state solution, but they could be worse. As always, it was up to the US President to ensure that yesterday's meeting resulted in more than smiles and an Israeli promise to extend the settlement freeze. That would be the easy option. The hope is that Mr Obama has his eye on the more distant prize of historic reconciliation in a part of the world where the continuing statelessness of the Palestinians, and the West's apparent tolerance of this situation, has become a poisonous symbol of injustice.

Video: Obama in peace talks with Israel

Already it is very late in the day to push for a two-state solution. The ethnic dividing line between Jews and Arabs is blurring, with Jewish settlers now controlling 45 per cent of West Bank land, according to a new report from the Israeli human rights group B'Tselem, while Israel's policy of demolishing Arab homes and building Jewish ones in East Jerusalem is fast bringing about a Jewish majority in that part of the city, too.

The US President has, until now, been preoccupied by domestic concerns, starting with the battle over health insurance and then the Gulf of Mexico oil disaster. Now is the moment to grapple with a foreign policy conundrum that his predecessor woefully neglected, but which only an American president can move forward.