Obama's Israel visit gives no sign of hope for Palestinians

Air Force One is to touch down in Tel Aviv today, for the first time during Barack Obama's presidency. The visit is also the beginning of the first foreign trip of his new term.

Israel has been a constant thorn in Mr Obama's side since he took office in 2009. For most of his presidency, Israel's prime minister has been the intransigent Benjamin Netanyahu, whose dysfunctional leadership led Mr Obama to remark, late last year, that "Israel doesn't know what its own best interests are".

What, then, can Mr Obama achieve, since he is evidently unwilling to take on the pro-Israel lobby in Washington and unable to do anything about Mr Netanyahu's hardline policies and the even harder ones of his new coalition partners?

It must mean something, optimists say, that Mr Obama has made Israel and Palestine the first foreign destinations of his final term. But he has been down this road before: in his first term he pushed Mr Netanyahu to pause in the building of illegal settlements, only to be outmanoeuvred by the prime minister.

While the Israeli cabinet is determined, the Palestinian leadership remains sadly split. So with neither side ready to move, there is almost no prospect of any meaningful initiative now, even from the most powerful nation on Earth.

Mr Obama's people are saying he will bypass the leaders on both sides and speak directly to the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. This is a standard approach when faced with a roadblock at the political level, but this time there is little reason to think it will help. As the results of their elections seemed to highlight, Israelis are showing little interest in the moribund peace process.

Such is the power of the settler lobby, however, that although members of the new Knesset were chosen mainly on economic issues, Mr Netanyahu's new coalition is radical and pro-settler.

Clearly, time is running out. When Jordan's King Abdullah points out that Israel will have to choose between "apartheid and democracy", he is highlighting what is becoming increasingly obvious: that the window for a two-state solution is closing.

The relentless expansion of settlements across the occupied West Bank is reaching a tipping point, after which it will become impossible to drag Israel back to a two-state solution. Mr Obama might be the last US president to use the words "two-state solution" in anything but a historical sense.


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