President Obama's trip to Israel is mildly disorienting for anybody who sat through the past few years of American politics. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who all but endorsed Mitt Romney in 2012, once earned standing ovations in Congress for undermining Obama, and scored big "points back in Israel by accusing Obama of saying something he had not (that Israel should retreat to its 1967 borders)," says Karl Vick at TIME. Now "the famously frosty pair appeared determined to project a budding buddydom," exchanging warm handshakes, warmer compliments, and even a few choice jokes.
On Thursday, Obama is spending a few hours in Ramallah, the West Bank headquarters of President Mahmoud Abbas' Fatah party, then giving a speech to Israeli citizens in Jerusalem. His West Bank visit, especially, underlines that Obama is "hoping to move the Middle East peace process forward," even though that is not one of his official goals, say Vanessa O'Brien and Michele Chabin in USA Today.
Palestinians "deserve an end to occupation" and an "independent state of their own," Obama said in a joint press conference with Abbas. And Abbas "is so eager to return to peace talks with the Israelis that he may soften his demand that Israel's president publicly pledge to halt construction of new settlements on Palestinian land before such negotiations can resume," says David Kirkpatrick in The New York Times, citing confidential talking points.
Before going abroad, Obama set expectations for his trip that are "so low you'd think he was making another visit to Ohio," says E.J. Dionne at The Washington Post. But could the visit actually salvage the given-up-for-dead Israeli-Palestinian peace talks?
[T]hese two days are essential to improving the president's standing within the middle ground of Israeli opinion.... Moving Israelis his way is crucial to everything else Obama needs to do. From 2009... Netanyahu strengthened his political hand at home by using Obama's relative unpopularity in Israel as a foil. After a brief suspension, Netanyahu's government resumed the expansion of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, further complicating efforts to make it the heart of a new Palestinian state and arousing anger among Palestinians.... At a news conference, Obama and Netanyahu both endorsed the two-state concept. But time is now its enemy. That's why Obama's trip is so important, despite any spin to the contrary. It means he's putting himself back into the game. [Washington Post]
"Palestinians doubt Obama is willing to spend the domestic political capital required to pressure Israel to halt construction" on new settlements, says The Associated Press' Karin Laub. And "with settlements growing steadily, time for a partition deal may be running out," and fast. "A year from now, if the current trends continue, the two-state solution will not be possible," Israeli settlement watcher and Jerusalem expert Daniel Seidemann tells the AP. "The map will be so balkanized that it will not be possible to create a credible border between Israel and Palestine."
European diplomats warned in an internal report last month that if the current pace of settlement activity on Jerusalem's southern flank continues, "an effective buffer between east Jerusalem and Bethlehem may be in place by the end of 2013, thus making the realization of a viable two-state solution inordinately more difficult, if not impossible."... It's not clear if the new Israeli government sworn in on Monday — although its makeup is more centrist — will change course from the outgoing one which was heavily stacked with settlers and their supporters. The main coalition partner of Netanyahu's rightist Likud Party is the centrist Yesh Atid, which has called for a resumption of negotiations but whose leader, Yair Lapid, says Israel must keep all of Jerusalem. The third largest party, the Jewish Home, opposes Palestinian statehood and wants to annex 60 percent of the West Bank. [AP]
In that case, the situation is hopeless, says Andrew Sullivan at The Dish. Without a halt to the settlements, there can be no peace.
There is, it seems to me, no neutral ground on this. Either the settlements must be stopped and reversed or the U.S. must cut its ties to Israel. Yet neither will happen ever. Perhaps there is some moral preening in opposing the settlements, as I do, while knowing that none of this matters, that the brutality will continue, and our complicity in it will be as "unbreakable" and "eternal" as the alliance Obama is currently toasting. [The Dish]
Hold on, because something has changed, say Politico's Josh Gerstein and Glenn Thrush: "Two paradigm-shifting elections — one in the U.S., one in Israel — have left the Israeli prime minister with no choice: Now he needs Obama." Netanyahu "eats polls for breakfast, he knows very well what the standing of the president is and what his own standing is," Clinton-era Israel ambassador Martin Indyk tells Politico. With Netanyahu's electoral setback and Obama's solid re-election, expect "a more pliant Netanyahu" more open to Obama's suggestions on settlements and Palestine.
But Obama has learned some hard truths in his first four years in office. A reporter asked him if he'd made any mistakes regarding the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in his first term. Obama's reply: "I'm absolutely sure there are a host of things I could have done that would have been more deft, or would have created better optics. But ultimately, this is a really hard problem."