As President Obama prepares to leave for a visit to Saudi Arabia and a major speech in Cairo, he is also struggling to revive a U.S.-backed Mideast process that has effectively come to a dead end.
Obama has adopted as his own the basic outlines of President Bush’s road map to peace that envisioned a series of mutual Israeli-Palestinian steps culminating in two states living peacefully side-by-side. A key requirement was that the Israelis quit building and expanding settlement on occupied West Bank land that the Palestinians claim for their homeland. And the premise of the road map rests on having leaders able and willing to deliver on those commitments.
Israel’s new right-wing prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, is a longtime skeptic of an independent Palestinian state and, on his recent visit to Washington, refused to commit to the idea. Obama asked him — forcefully, we’re told — to freeze settlement activity including the loophole of expansion to accommodate "natural growth." Just as bluntly, the Israeli government said no. Given the nature of Netanyahu’s governing coalition, it’s unlikely the prime minister could say anything else and still stay in power.
Then it was Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ turn to visit Washington. Obama, like his predecessors, asked the Palestinians to address seriously the security concerns of the Israelis. But there’s a big question of how much of a mandate the 74-year-old Palestinian leader has among his people. His party was driven out of Gaza by the radical Hamas, which then provoked a thunderous Israeli response by interminable rocket attacks on civilian targets.
Hamas does not recognize Israel and is pledged to work for its destruction. Whether Hamas would change its views if a genuine two-state solution were in sight is one of those Mideastern imponderables. Likely no Israeli government of whatever political stripe would want to take that chance.
Meanwhile, expectations are high for Obama’s Cairo speech. The subject is U.S. relations with the Muslim world and integral to that is the American role in bringing about some kind of resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Throughout a difficult week, Obama maintained his sunny optimism. "I think it’s important not to assume the worst, but to assume the best," he said. No one ever went far wrong in the Mideast assuming the worst.