Is Obama to blame for the lack of progress? YES


One of the great problems of being a European-style leader in an American setting, is that you do actually live and work in America. In essence, that is the nature of the paradox faced by Barack Obama. Most of his instincts, especially on foreign policy, are European. Most of the political realities he has to deal with are American.

When it comes to Israel - a litmus- test issue if ever there was one for the differently configured political cultures on either side of the Atlantic - the result is the kind of comedy of errors we have seen over recent days.

On Thursday last week he was telling the State Department that the 1967 "borders" (with agreed land swaps) would form the basis for a peace deal with the Palestinians. By the time of his AIPAC speech at the weekend he had backtracked to the extent that the 1967 lines would form the basis not for a peace deal but for talks about a peace deal: "…the parties themselves - Israelis and Palestinians - will negotiate a border that is different than the one that existed on June 4, 1967," he said.

It may all look like nit-picking. But the US President does not normally blunder into such a sensitive issue one day and then backtrack a few days later.

So, what happened? Two things. The first was the almost instantaneous rejection by Binyamin Netanyahu (and many others in Israel) of any notion that Israel was about to commit suicide by agreeing to indefensible borders. The second was the realisation by Obama that he has no strategy for bending the Israeli leader to his will.

Israel is an immensely popular cause in the US (for most of the same reasons that it is an unpopular cause in much of Europe - it's seen as a lone, Western-style democracy locked in a battle with third-world barbarism).

With many Democrats deeply unhappy about the way Obama has handled Israel during his first term, and with America gearing up for the 2012 presidential elections, this is not the time for him to start talking about coercion, let alone sanctions. Add in to the mix the new presence in the Palestinian leadership of Hamas, an outfit that mourned the death of Osama bin Laden and thus spat on the graves of 3,000 Americans, and it's clear that the cash value of Obama's interjection on the 1967 "borders" is the sum total of absolutely nothing at all.

Robin Shepherd is director of international affairs at the Henry Jackson Society

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