Analysis: Obama could not make peace alone

Obama’s much vaunted ‘peace summit’ at the UN became nothing more than a handshake. But who is to blame?

Obama’s much vaunted ‘peace summit’ at the UN became nothing more than a handshake. But who is to blame?

Binyamin Netanyahu has accomplished a remarkable feat. He travelled to the US, met the president at a highly publicised summit, upset the leader of the free world, returned home empty-handed — and is still not facing a public outcry.

A similar dispute with the Americans ultimately brought down the Shamir government in 1992. Later premiers never dared openly confront the US.

Barack Obama’s displeasure was barely disguised and no amount of spin can gloss over the failure of the three-way summit. But Mr Netanyahu, at least for now, is getting away with it.

This is due in part to the cautious, many would say obstinate, style of Bibiplomacy. But even more, it is a comment on the limitations of Mr Obama’s influence on Middle East politics.

In the past, US presidents have been credited with moving the Israelis and their Arab neighbours towards diplomatic breakthroughs. The truth is, they never did it on their own.

On the Israeli side, there was always accompanying pressure from a sizable left-wing lobby in the Knesset, pushing the PM towards concessions. In addition, a sizable part of the Israeli public always favoured the move. The PM ignored them at his peril.

In Palestinian politics, Yasser Arafat, for all his multiple faults, at least commanded the support of a majority of the Palestinians, and could override the objections of Fatah’s opponents.

But Mr Obama has neither of these.

Israel’s left-wing has never been weaker. Labour is split, while its leader, Ehud Barak, is adopting policies just as right-wing as Mr Netanyahu’s.

Centre-Left Kadima has yet to find its voice in opposition and Meretz, reduced to only three MKs, is irrelevant. While a majority of the public, surveys say, still supports a two-state solution in principle, there is deep fatigue from failed peace initiatives.

Hundreds of thousands are not about to take to the streets. Mr Netanyahu is much more worried now about objections from his right flank than anything the left can do to him.

On the Palestinian side, an embattled Mahmoud Abbas knows that any concession to Israel or America will be seized upon by Hamas and his rivals within Fatah.

Mr Obama’s belief in the force of his charisma — his insistence that change can be achieved in the Middle East just because he says it can be so — seems to have foundered. He has no partners right now in the region and there is a limit to the threats he can make to Israel while the Iranian nuclear programme is at the top of the agenda.

His only chance of succeeding is a more gradual approach, which will first re-energise the Israeli peace camp, creating a groundswell of pressure on Mr Netanyahu, and taking further steps to bolster Abu Mazen’s standing among his own people. He can’t go it on his own.

Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010