Expecting too much from Obama?

An interesting editorial from the Arab News on 20 May:

For decades, the chasm between words and deeds has been the root cause of the continued nonexistence of a Palestinian state and the Israelis’ ability to treat international views on the matter with contempt. There have been floods of fine words about Palestinian rights and Israeli abuses but nothing has ever been done and the words have remained only that — words without action.

And it seems to be happening yet again. In Monday’s meeting in Washington between President Barack Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, promoted beforehand by American officials as a watershed in US-Israeli relations, there were fine words from the president about the need for a two-state solution and Israel’s obligation to stop Jewish settlement in the West Bank, but Netanyahu ran rings around him. There was no acceptance by the Israeli leader of a Palestinian state, nothing about settlements; Netanyahu simply stalled, spinning empty words about being willing to live “side by side” with the Palestinians, knowing perfectly well that could mean anything (he would like it to mean all the Palestinians forced into Jordan, living “side by side” with the Jordanians). Most of the time, he threw spanners into the works with his instance that peace talks be linked to Iran’s nuclear program but that before they can take place, the Palestinians first must recognize Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state.

The demand used to be that Israel’s right to exist be recognized — which the Palestinian Authority has done. Now it is Israel’s right “as a Jewish state.” What next? That the Palestinians accept Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state where Jewish dietary laws are strictly enforced on everyone there or where the call to prayer and church bells are banned? Why not? Anything to delay, anything to humiliate. As for linking the Palestinian issue to Iran’s nuclear plans, this may well be the most outrageous case imaginable of moving the goal posts. Iran is not Palestine. Iran and Palestine are entirely different issues. Netanyahu might just as well demand that Palestine be linked to resolving the problems of Kashmir or Tibet. He is quite capable of doing even that — and pretending to be serious at the same time.

The meeting is all the more exasperating given the positive spin on it last week by the Americans with the implication that Netanyahu was going to be told in no uncertain terms what he had to do. It was not progress; it was stalemate — and Obama is in part responsible. He has raised expectations of a breakthrough in the Middle East. He has to deliver. If he does not, there will be a dangerous tidal wave of Arab and Muslim anger. Signs of it are already visible in the response by Hamas who accuse him of deliberately trying to mislead international public opinion about his intentions toward the Israelis and Palestinians.

Next week, it is the turn of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and then Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to meet Obama. After his exchange with Netanyahu, he is going to have his work cut out convincing them that change will happen. Reiterating his support for a two-state solution will not be enough. He will have to tell them how he is going to make it work. He has the power to force the Israelis to action. But does he have the will to wield that power? That is the question.

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