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Friday, March 22, 2013

If it’s peace he wants, President Barack Obama is far too late - Telegraph

If it’s peace he wants, President Barack Obama is far too late - Telegraph

If Barack Obama was under any illusions about the massive challenge he faces trying to re-engage in the Middle East, he had a rude awakening the moment he arrived in Israel on his first visit to the Jewish state as US president.
As Mr Obama prepared to meet Israeli and Palestinian leaders, Hamas militants based in Gaza fired two rockets at the Israeli town of Sderot. No one was hurt in the attacks, but the symbolism of this latest act of unprovoked violence on the part of Islamist hard-liners serves as a graphic reminder to the president of the huge task he faces in attempting to rebuild relationships after four years of abject neglect.
When Mr Obama chose the Egyptian capital, Cairo, to make his first keynote speech on the Middle East after becoming president, he was making a deliberate attempt to redefine America’s relationship with the region. Rather than the US being a slavish defender of Israel’s security needs, which was the accusation Arab leaders often directed at Washington, he said he sought a “new beginning” with the Muslim world, one where America could build relations with Islamic governments on the basis of mutual trust, rather than mutual suspicion.
But, as he conceded at the start of his current visit, he “screwed up”. Far from persuading the Muslim world to adopt a more friendly approach towards America, all that has happened since the Cairo speech in June 2009 is that anti-American hostility in the Muslim world has deepened. As if to prove the point, Palestinian demonstrators burnt an effigy of the US president as he prepared to meet the Palestinian leader, Mahmoud Abbas.
But the disillusion many ordinary Palestinians feel towards Mr Obama is not caused by the policies he pursued during his first term. On the contrary, they are angry that, having promised so much in Cairo, he has delivered so little. Their sentiments were expressed in a banner held by Palestinian protesters at a Jewish settlement on the outskirts of Jerusalem yesterday: “Obama: you promised hope and change – you gave us colonies and apartheid,” an unflattering reference to the thousands of new settler homes that have been built in the West Bank in the past few years.
Having tried, at times, to distance himself from the complexities of Middle Eastern politics, it now seems that Mr Obama realises his policy of disengagement is no longer tenable.
Thus, having made his first keynote speech on Middle East policy in an Arab capital, he made his second address yesterday in Jerusalem, the city that Israel claims as the eternal capital of the Jewish people.
And in terms of turning a new page in his previously fractious relationship with Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, Mr Obama went a long way towards reassuring the Israeli people that he was on their side.
On all the major security issues, he hardly put a foot wrong. He made clear that Washington was committed to defending Israel’s “vibrant democracy” against any future threats to its existence, and reaffirmed America’s opposition to Iran’s nuclear programme. “The position of the United States of America is clear,” he said. “Iran must not get a nuclear weapon.”
He was equally hawkish in his pronouncements on the civil war in neighbouring Syria, declaring that the “Assad regime must go so that Syria’s future can begin”.
Mr Netanyahu, who has in the past openly questioned the Obama administration’s commitment to confronting the region’s rogue states, will have been reassured by these unequivocal statements. But he will have been less enthused by the veiled criticisms of Israel’s policy towards its Arab neighbours – “Israel must reverse an undertow of isolation” – and the insistence that Mr Obama remains committed to achieving justice for the Palestinian people.
Mr Netanyahu’s official position is that he, like Mr Obama, is committed to achieving a two-state solution to resolve the long-standing dispute between Israel and the Palestinians. With every day that passes, however, that outcome looks less and less likely, not least because of the Israeli prime minister’s refusal to freeze further settlement construction to give peace a chance.
His domestic political standing may have taken a knock during the recent general election, but the new government he formed last weekend still contains a significant number of hard-liners who are totally opposed to the notion of an independent Palestinian state. Indeed, by appointing Israeli Right-wingers to run the all-important housing and defence ministries, Mr Netanyahu seems to be signalling that he has little interest in resuming peace talks with his Palestinian opposite number.
As it is a cardinal rule for the Palestinians that all construction activity in the settlements must cease before they will even consider resuming talks, it is clear the US president has his work cut out even getting the two sides to the negotiating table. After four years of neglect, Mr Obama may find his attempt to reconnect with the region is a case of too little, too late.

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