Barack Obama rarely disappoints with a big speech. But he also rarely gets a topic where big speeches are so easily dismissed as mere words, as is the case with Middle East peace, the focus of his address to the United Nations General Assembly yesterday.
Certainly the tone from Washington has changed this year: there is a note of urgency that was never there under the Bush administration, and a note of real rather than manufactured impatience with Israeli policy, notably on the West Bank settlements. But the results of Obama’s efforts have so far been painfully small. Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas were induced to shake hands — coldly and grudgingly, if the photos are any guide — and have agreed, in an equally grudging manner, to resume “final-status” peace negotiations. But no one thinks the negotiations are likely to go anywhere.
An article in Tuesday’s New York Times summarises the current state of the President’s thinking on the topic. Since his efforts to secure preliminary confidence-building measures — to get the Israelis to stop settlement construction and the Arab states to make diplomatic overtures to Israel — have failed, he is simply leaving the interim steps behind and moving straight to the next stage.
That is primarily designed to increase the pressure on Netanyahu, who clearly has no desire for talks of any sort. Administration officials are quoted as saying they are “using his own unwillingness to agree to resolve the interim issue — in this case, a settlement freeze — to force him to a place he has indicated he really does not want to go yet: the final status talks.”
But fundamentally this is all old news. The parties have made similar commitments many times without getting any closer to resolution. Moreover, the obstacles to peace all appear to be getting worse rather than better: the settlements keep growing, Israeli public opinion seems more intransigent than ever, Hamas is firmly entrenched in Gaza, and the Fatah administration on the West Bank is hopelessly discredited.
And as the obstacles grow, so the consequences of failure appear in starker relief. Jason Koutsoukis in this morning’s Age is trenchant but accurate:
“The paradox for Mr Netanyahu is that in order to keep his government intact, he must continue to feed Israel’s colonial enterprise in the occupied West Bank.
“But to keep his country intact over the long term as a democratic Jewish state, he must end that occupation, which is as morally corrosive to Israel’s national identity as it is destructive to the future aspirations of the Palestinian people.”
More than any other recent President, Obama prides himself on his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom, to follow an argument wherever it might lead even at the expense of vested interests. Hence, his tackling of taboo topics such as race in America, and his current insistent questioning of military strategy in Afghanistan.
He therefore seems the person best placed to point out that the emperor has no clothes: that the two-state solution to which a generation of policymakers have committed themselves has become a non-starter, that the “facts on the ground”, as the Israelis proudly refer to them, have rendered it obsolete, and that Jews and Arabs are going to have to work out how to share the territory between them. While he isn’t going to give up yet, his thinking may already be turning in that direction.
But if the whole idea of a two-state solution recedes (further) into the background, no one knows what might follow. While it’s easy to devise two-state schemes on paper that have some plausibility, getting a one-state solution onto the table even in theory seems a mammoth task.
If Obama can’t do it, it’s hard to imagine who can.