Ignore the hype. It's four more years of settlement growth
Israeli and Palestinian officials have been in Washington laying the ground for President Barack Obama's visit to Israel and the West Bank, scheduled for next month and the first since he took office four years ago.
Topping the agenda, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has said, will be efforts to restart the long-stalled peace process. Last week Palestinian officials said they had urged the White House to arrive with a diplomatic plan.
The US president began his first term on a different footing, ignoring Israel and heading instead to Cairo where he made a speech committing the US to a new era in relations with the Arab world. Little came of the promise.
Now he apparently intends to start his second term -- as Netanyahu resumes office too, following last month's elections -- with an effort to engage with Israel and the Palestinians that is almost as certain to prove an exercise in futility.
The prospect of reviving the peace track between Israel and the Palestinians is not one that is appetizing for either Obama or Netanyahu. Both are bruised from locking horns over a settlement freeze -- the key plank of the US president's efforts -- during his first term.
But equally, it seems, the price of continuing inaction is high too. The Palestinians have repeatedly embarrassed Obama at the United Nations, not least by isolating the US in November as it opposed an upgrade in the Palestinians' observer status. Inertia also looks risky given the growing unrest in the West Bank over hunger-striking prisoners.
Ahead lie potentially even bigger headaches, including the doomsday scenario -- from Israel and Washington's perspective -- that the Palestinians approach the International Criminal Court to demand Israel be investigated for war crimes.
The perennial optimists have been searching for signs that Obama is readier this time to get tough. Neither of the president's recent major appointments -- John Kerry as secretary of state and Chuck Hagel, nominated as defence secretary -- has been welcomed in Israel.
US determination has been buoyed, it is argued, by what is seen as a tide change in Israeli public opinion, highlighted by the surprise electoral success of centrist Yair Lapid and relatively poor showing by Netanyahu's Likud party.
Netanyahu's officials sense similar motives, complaining that Obama's visit so soon after the election is direct "interference" in coalition-building. The centrists, they fear, will be able to extract concessions from Netanyahu, who will not wish to greet the US president as head of an extremist government.
Israeli officials, meanwhile, look eager to mend fences: they have hopefully codenamed the visit "Unbreakable Alliance" and announced an intention to award Obama Israel's highest honor, the presidential medal.
The more hopeful scenarios, however, overlook the obstacles to a diplomatic solution posed both by Israel's domestic politics and by the Palestinians' inability to withstand Israeli bullying.
Not least, they ignore the fact that Netanyahu's Knesset faction is the most rightwing in Likud's history. He cannot advance a peace formula -- assuming he wanted to -- without tearing apart his party.
Equally, there is nothing in Lapid's record to indicate he is willing to push for meaningful compromises on Palestinian statehood. On this issue, he occupies the traditional ground of Likud, before it moved further right. A recent poll found half his supporters called themselves rightwing.
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