That elusive Middle-East peace process

Seems our thoughts are shared…

Here is what we wrote a couple of weeks ago about Obama’s policy blunder in the Middle-East.

Compare that to what the Economist, one of the worlds leading newspapers (as they like to call themselves) wrote today:

Israel, Palestine and America

Don’t give up Nov 12th 2009

From The Economist print edition Barack Obama must step back into the fray

RARELY have the prospects for a decent deal between Israelis and Palestinians looked so bleak. Despite his grudging acceptance of the two-state ideal, Israel’s prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, sounds perfectly content with the status quo: in effect, fortress Israel with the Palestinians impotently walled off. Meanwhile the Palestinians are as bitterly divided as ever. The Islamists of Hamas, still in military control of the Gaza Strip and—at least on paper—scornful of Israel’s right to exist, square off against secular and more amenable Fatah, which runs a fledgling state on the West Bank, albeit one riddled with Israeli roads, barriers and Jewish settlements.

In the past week, things have got even worse for the Palestinians since their leader, Mahmoud Abbas, a man of peace and patience, has declared in frustration that he will step down, with no obvious successor in sight (see article). So they look leaderless as well as disunited. Perhaps worst of all, the Americans, without whom no durable deal can be done, have seemed to vacillate, with neither a vision nor a plan. Suddenly, after the brightest of starts, Barack Obama appears to be making a hash of it. In June, in a speech in Cairo, he thrilled the Arab world, including many Palestinians, by promising that America would be more even-handed. He insisted that the Israelis should stop building or expanding settlements on the West Bank as a condition for bringing Palestinians back to the negotiating table.

Yet four months later, after Mr Netanyahu had bluntly refused, Mr Obama’s secretary of state, Hillary Clinton, was congratulating him merely for his promise to “restrain” settlement-building. This prompted a furious Mr Abbas to tender his resignation. Having decided to pick a fight with Israel over the settlements, Mr Obama should have pressed on, threatening to squeeze the recalcitrant Mr Netanyahu with a range of penalties (for instance, by withholding government loans, lessening aid by the amount that Israel spends on settlements and ceasing automatically to wield a protective veto over UN resolutions hostile to Israel).

If Mr Netanyahu’s acceptance of a full settlement-building freeze had led to the break-up of his coalition, it might have been replaced by one more amenable to peacemaking compromises. Or, if Mr Obama had never wished to engage in a long wrangle with Mr Netanyahu, he should not have made such ambitious demands in the first place. As it has turned out, Mr Obama now looks like a man whose bluff has been called. His hand as a mediator has been badly weakened. And the Palestinians’ most flexible leader may, as a result, be forced out of the game.

Salvage from the wreck

The Palestinians need to sort themselves out. No deal will stick without the co-operation of Hamas, so Arab mediators, chiefly Egyptian, must persevere in bringing the two rivals together. Mr Abbas has been well-meaning but is himself a ditherer. It is still unclear whether he really means to go this time or whether his promise to do so is designed to wring concessions out of either America or Israel or both. If there were a plausible successor, Mr Abbas should make way. But the best bet, Marwan Barghouti, a Fatah man who is respected also by Hamas, is in an Israeli prison, convicted of multiple murders during an earlier Palestinian uprising.

The Israelis could let him out as part of a prisoner exchange. Were Hamas also to free a captured Israeli corporal, Gilad Shalit, held in Gaza for three years, the mood would lighten all round. Though most Arab countries in the region have said they would recognise Israel if it withdrew to its borders of 1967, they too could do more to shore up whoever leads the Palestinians. And they could offer confidence-building gestures to Israel, for instance allowing more trade and overflights. But it is Mr Obama who must take the lead, however encumbered he may be with other pressing issues.

Starting with the “parameters” laid out by President Bill Clinton before he stepped down in 2000, he needs to present his own detailed two-state plan—and soon. In particular, he should tell the Israeli people why Mr Netanyahu’s obduracy on settlements, while reaping short-term popularity, in the long run threatens Israel’s very existence.