Page last updated at 11:40 GMT, Saturday, 21 November 2009

Tough lessons for Obama on Mid-East peace

The BBC's Middle East editor Jeremy Bowen considers how the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has taught US President Barack Obama hard and humiliating lessons.

Settlement in West Bank
Nearly 500,000 Jewish people live in settlements built on occupied territory

The land between the river Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea has great sunsets.

One the other day turned the sky from deep blue to pink, then angry orange, and flaming red.

The fading light glowed on the roofs of the expanding and illegal Jewish settlements that run, like little fortresses, along the mountain spine of the West Bank.

This is also a tremendous place to see a false dawn.

The finest was the first, the Israeli-Palestinian handshake on the White House lawn in 1993.

President Clinton, beaming, stood between Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin and Shimon Peres, old enemies, now officially partners for peace.

That was the saddest too, because it might have worked. Two years later, Mr Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist.

File photo (1998) Palestinan leader Yasser Arafat (L) and ex-US President Bill Clinton (R)
Negotiating peace in the region has eluded other US presidents

Another false dawn was a trip by Bill Clinton to Gaza in 1998. Yes, an American president in Gaza. It is not conceivable these days.

I mention this almost forgotten visit because, as another famous American once said about baseball, it is deja vu all over again.

Benjamin Netanyahu was prime minister of Israel in 1998, and he is again now.

Hillary Clinton was on the trip, as the president's wife, and now she is US Secretary of State.

Mr Netanyahu used to drive her husband mad.

After he had lectured the president about the Middle East, Mr Clinton famously asked his aides: "Who the (bleep) does he think he is? Who's the (bleeping) superpower here?" Only he did not say bleep.

There is a different man in the White House, but once again, he has had a crash course in Middle Eastern reality.

Failure to deliver

On a hot day at Cairo University back at the beginning of June, President Obama spoke of his country's unbreakable ties with Israel.

US President Barack Obama in Cairo
President Obama is finding it tough to deliver his promises on the conflict

But he also had a passionate denunciation of the humiliations that Palestinians have suffered at the hands of their Israeli occupiers.

As a first step, President Obama wanted Israel to freeze construction for Jewish people in the occupied Palestinian territories.

Nearly six months on he might be using Bill Clintonesque language about Mr Netanyahu, who has refused to freeze settlement activity.

It is called that by the way because it is not just houses and flats, it is all the infrastructure and security that goes with them, which swallows up more of the land the Palestinians want for a state.

So President Obama has not been able to deliver on one of his first big promises.

In the Middle East, where the strength of a leader tends to be measured in an old-fashioned way, it is a humiliation.

Mr Netanyahu knows that, so do the Palestinians and presumably Mr Obama does too. He asked Saudi Arabia for some symbolic concessions for Israel, and got another refusal.

Bitter pill

The settlements really matter.


The acclaimed Palestinian writer, Raja Shehadeh, told me in Ramallah the other week that settlements make his neighbours think they are living in a vanishing land.

In the last few days another 900 homes for Jewish people have been authorised on occupied land in Jerusalem.

An exasperated President Obama responded by saying that Israel was making it harder to achieve peace and was embittering Palestinians in a way that could be very dangerous.

Israel says the occupied eastern side of Jerusalem is its own - a claim not accepted by, among others, the United States, Britain, the rest of the EU and of course the Palestinians themselves, who want it as their capital.

Israel cannot expect peace with the Palestinians while it builds on the territory they want for a state. But it might not have peace at home if it tries to remove settlements. They are an ideological poison pill.

Growing frustrations

President Obama identified peace between Israel and the Palestinians as an American national interest very early on in his time in power. He has no choice other than to keep on trying.

But what an agenda.

President Mahmoud Abbas, America's current Palestinian partner, is so fed up with the lack of progress towards independence that he has threatened to leave his job.

As for Mr Netanyahu, one normally astute Israeli journalist, going against the conventional wisdom, believes he is serious about peace with the Palestinians, but only so he can clear the decks to be ready if necessary for war with Iran and its allies in Lebanon early next year.

At least, unlike some of his predecessors, President Obama started working on the Middle East in the week he was inaugurated. So he has time for a rethink.

Not unlimited time. Raja Shehadeh also told me that the atmosphere at the moment reminded him of the time before the first Palestinian uprising in 1987.

Some economic progress perhaps, but a deepening rage that just needs a spark to explode.

How to listen to: From Our Own Correspondent

BBC Radio 4: Saturdays, 1130. Second weekly edition on Thursdays, 1100 (some weeks only)

BBC World Service: See programme schedules

Download the podcast

Listen on iPlayer

Story by story at the programme website

Israeli settlement plan denounced
18 Nov 09 |  Middle East
Obama warns Israel on settlements
18 Nov 09 |  Middle East
Challenge of Israeli settlements
03 Mar 09 |  Middle East
Country profile: Israel and Palestinian territories
09 Mar 11 |  Country profiles

Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit


Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific