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What Price Photo Op?

Barack Obama got to play peacemaker today during his staged meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas. In a throwback to Bill Clinton’s famous photo op on the White House Lawn with Yasir Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin, Obama stood between the men, holding their arms as the two shook hands.

In his remarks, the president proclaimed that he intended to break new ground:

It is past time to talk about starting negotiations; it is time to move forward. It is time to show flexibility and common sense and sense of compromise that is necessary to achieve our goals,” he continued, adding that leaders in the Middle East could not continue “the same patterns, taking tentative steps forward, then taking steps back.

But given the fact that the Palestinian Authority and Abbas are in no position to make any deal with Israel no matter where such an agreement placed the borders between Israel and a Palestinian state, the Obama-orchestrated dog-and-pony show staged for the press today is, in fact, simply more of the same. Like George W. Bush’s Annapolis Summit, held in the fall of 2007, the pictures and the talk about the need for progress are utterly futile. After that meeting, Netanyahu’s predecessor Ehud Olmert offered Abbas pretty much the deal that the “experts” on the Middle East always claim is the only solution: a two-state plan, with the Palestinians getting virtually all the West Bank as well as part of Jerusalem. But Abbas was no more able to say yes to this than Arafat was when Ehud Barak offered him almost as much in the summer of 2000.

What is different about the current situation is that when this president makes “evenhanded” statements in which he poses a moral equivalence between Israel and the Palestinians, his coolness to the Jewish state during his nine months in office leads one to believe that he really means it. Obama’s obsession with trying to halt the building of Jewish housing not only in Jerusalem but also in the West Bank (parts of which were accepted by the Bush administration as permanently belonging to Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawal from Gaza) has not made the Palestinians more amenable to peace. On the contrary, the more Washington backs away from the Israelis, the more likely Abbas (not to mention his Hamas rivals who rule Gaza and threaten his hold on the West Bank) is to stand pat and wait for the Americans to deliver more Israeli concessions to him on a silver platter. And given that leftist Jewish groups, who may well have the ear of Obama and his intimates, are calling for more pressure on Israel, supposedly for its own good, there is every reason to believe that any involvement by the president in the talks will be to Israel’s detriment.

Far from being a formula for peace, Obama’s involvement and his hectoring of Israel may set in motion a chain of events that, like the failure of Bill Clinton’s Camp David summit, may instigate a new campaign of Palestinian violence. Photos such as the one taken today may nurture the illusion that Obama is helping to nudge the Middle East on its way to peace. But the price for such heightened expectations, in the absence of any real change of heart about the need for mutual recognition of Israel on the part of the Arab and Muslim worlds, may be terrible indeed.


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