Page last updated at 11:04 GMT, Saturday, 16 May 2009 12:04 UK

Obama's Middle East peace quest

As the Obama administration looks poised to launch itself into the Middle East process, the BBC's diplomatic correspondent Paul Adams reflects on observing nearly two decades of US peace-making efforts.

Palestinians protest at expansion of an Israeli settlement in the occupied West Bank
The Obama administration is committed to a two-state solution

It is 1991. As a rainy Jerusalem spring gives way to a typically scorching summer, George Bush senior's envoy - the tall, patrician, steely Texan, James Baker III - shuttles in and out of the city, eight times, nudging and cajoling the Israelis and Palestinians towards an accommodation.

Standing outside the American consulate, I sometimes imagine I can hear the sound of stubborn Middle Eastern heads being cracked together by this dogged mediator.

The air is ripe with possibility. Despite the daunting obstacles, I am hopeful. And a little bit involved.

Catastrophic failure

Somewhere in the midst of those tortuous months, I find myself passing messages between the Americans and the Palestinians.

Oblique telephone conversations in which one side suggests that if "x" should say "y", then this might perhaps be helpful.

It only lasts, as I recall, some 24 hours, and it is now, quite literally, a footnote in someone's book.

Fast forward nine years, past high and low points too numerous to mention, to the summer of 2000.

Another decisive moment for American Middle East diplomacy.

As I head for Camp David that summer, I wonder what the change of scenery might do for the two main contestants.

As Yasser Arafat and Ehud Barak leave the blinding, unmediated light of the Middle East behind them and settle into the shady, moist surroundings of the Maryland hills, might they come to see things differently?

Around President Clinton's wooded retreat, there is a keen sense of expectation.

Israeli settlement activity has already convinced many Palestinians that a viable state of their own is now a physical impossibility

I still have the receipt from a local fast food restaurant which, charmingly, includes the printed message: "We welcome the summit and the prospects for peace."

But the summit ends in disagreement and recrimination, on the day that Concorde crashes.

The Middle East peace process experiences its own catastrophic failure and goes down in flames when the Palestinian intifada erupts just a few weeks later.

Change of cast

Fast forward again, to the present day. No intervening highs this time, just an endless, desperate series of lows.

A different set of actors now, and it is almost needless to say, an even less propitious set of circumstances.

But an American president who, unlike his immediate predecessor, has placed huge value on achieving a breakthrough and seems to be in a hurry.

It is probably too early to know just what Middle East novice Barack Obama intends to say to the smooth-talking hardliner Benjamin Netanyahu when the two men meet.

But of the various contradictory indications so far, one stands out.

Barack Obama signs the executive order to close Guantanamo Bay prison camp - 22/1/2009
President Obama seems to be in a hurry to bring peace to the Middle East

Two weeks ago, when Vice President Joe Biden addressed the annual conference of AIPAC - the hugely influential pro-Israel lobby - he included a phrase not normally associated with public American discourse on the subject of Israel: "You're not going to like my saying this".

The list of things they were not going to like - being told to freeze settlement construction and dismantle West Bank roadblocks - was unexceptional.

And the Palestinians are being told to shape up too.

But the phrasing was almost unprecedented and seems to chime with a general impression that this American administration does not mind holding the Israeli government at a rather uncharacteristic arm's length.

Knocked together

It may be too late. Israeli settlement activity has already convinced many Palestinians that a viable state of their own is now a physical impossibility.

Many Israelis are equally cynical about the prospects for peace.

But the Obama administration says the end result must be a two-state solution, and by incorporating the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative into its own effort, it is also telling Israel that its reward would be peace.

Not just with the Palestinians, but with dozens of Arab and Muslim states across the world.

Mr Netanyahu will tell the president that Iran's nuclear ambitions constitute a much more pressing problem.

Benjamin Netanyahu
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu will meet President Obama on Monday

Mr Obama will not dismiss this danger but nor, it seems, will he be satisfied with hiding behind it.

He seems intent on reaching out to a sceptical, disillusioned Arab world.

His first foreign television interview after taking office was with an Arab satellite channel and his long-awaited address to the Muslim world will be delivered in Cairo in a couple of weeks time.

In another break with tradition that has Israelis wondering, Mr Obama's visit to the Middle East will not include a trip to Jerusalem.

But his Middle East envoy, George Mitchell, has already visited the region three times.

With his soft-spoken, easy manner and intriguing mix of Irish and Lebanese blood, Mr Mitchell is not a bit like patrician James Baker, but I think I can hear those Middle Eastern heads being knocked together already.

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