It's stalemate - and time is running out

Look me in the eye: Netanyahu and Obama have only deepened their mutual distrust over the past week

Look me in the eye: Netanyahu and Obama have only deepened their mutual distrust over the past week

Binyamin Netanyahu and Barack Obama have at least one thing in common. It would be hard to find two more accomplished orators on the international stage.

They instinctively read their audiences, are masters of the pregnant pause and the seemingly spontaneous quip, and expertly milk multiple standing ovations.

In his eight-day journey from the Knesset in Jerusalem to the Congress in Washington, stopping off at the AIPAC convention, Mr Netanyahu set out Israel's case in rhetorical flourishes. For President Obama, the two Middle East policy addresses, at the State Department and AIPAC, were merely a warm-up for his grand European tour this week.

But five speeches later, is peace in the region any closer?

The answer is, if at all, that prospects for any kind of significant engagement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority have receded this week. The President and Prime Minister have succeeded mainly in deepening the mutual suspicion between them.

Netanyahu is convinced that Obama ambushed him in his State Department speech when he talked about 1967 borders as the Israeli Prime Minister was about to board the plane for Washington.

Obama cannot have failed to note that the Israeli leader is distinctly more popular than him in the Republican-dominated Congress, and even among his own party's senators and representatives. It is hard to see how the two can partner in a diplomatic initiative any time this side of the American presidential elections, still 18 months away. The most they can hope for is a tense coexistence.

Meanwhile, there are the Palestinians, who are also disappointed with Obama. He pledged to side with Israel in opposing the unilateral recognition of a Palestinian state in the United Nations in September, but at the same time, did not offer any real basis for a resumption of talks with Israel.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Obama promised much, but after encouraging the Palestinians to cling to the demand of a complete freeze on settlement building, he failed to supply them a ladder to climb down when it emerged that Mr Netanyahu was unwilling, or at least incapable of, delivering that with his current coalition.

The president has lost credibility as a serious mediator with both Israelis and Palestinians, and now he is reduced to asking the leaders of the European Union for support in a peace initiative he has failed to articulate clearly, despite all his eloquence.

Meanwhile, the region is hurtling towards the September deadline.

September is not just the month of the United Nations General Assembly in New York. It is the point at which most Israeli and Palestinian analysts believe that the pent-up frustrations of the Palestinians will finally blow, after being stoked by the ineffectual President Mahmoud Abbas.

What form will this explosion take? Will we see non-violent marches of thousands of Palestinian citizens on Israeli checkpoints and settlements, posing a new challenge for the IDF, or will this be a full-blown Third Intifada, with a return to terror tactics? And how will the Palestinian security forces react, currently co-operating in the West Bank with the IDF to keep Hamas at bay?

Hamas, Hizbollah and Iran are all waiting in the wings to take advantage of the situation. The two leaders in Washington should have worked together at trying to find a way of averting disaster in four months, instead they competed at waxing eloquent.

    Last updated: 4:18pm, May 26 2011