The role of mediator, which President Obama continues to wish to play in the Middle East, supposes that the two sides have established sufficient mutual trust, as well as trust in the mediator, to make mediation possible.
Yet there is no evidence this mutual trust is in place, substantial evidence it is not in place, and some evidence that on the Palestinian side at least trust in the President’s objectivity is declining.
The President’s failure during his current Middle Eastern trip to push Israelis to permanently eschew settlement activity in areas deemed properly under Palestinian control is one more sign of slippage in the belief among Palestinians that Obama can play a mediating role.
Obama did say the United States continues to oppose the construction of Jewish housing on land claimed by the Palestinians. At the same time, he added that such disagreements should not be an “excuse” to do nothing.
The president’s position appears to be that the Palestinian demand amounts to a “precondition,” which of course it is, and therefore unacceptable. That‘s fine, except that the precondition has been in place since before the Obama administration took office, and the president has never before enunciated that as an obstacle to progress. It also follows an Israeli declaration of a 10-month moratorium on construction, a step that failed to prompt the Palestinians to return to the table.
In that context, his statements this week are interpreted by Palestinians as an unfavorable shift away from them.
Had the president opposed preconditions from the outset – as previous presidents have done – the issue would likely be right where it is today. But at least his Thursday statements wouldn’t be interpreted as a momentum change.
The president continues to properly assert the theoretical belief that Palestinians deserve an independent and sovereign state and an end to occupation by Israel. He said the prospect of a contiguous Palestinian state alongside a Jewish state of Israel continues to exist if negotiations would restart.
The trick lies in turning that theoretical belief into reality in a region utterly lacking in mutual trust.
The fact is that in the Middle East, momentum for a stable solution will only come via one of two ways. Either it will percolate up from the hearts and minds of those living in the area or it will be imposed violently.
The best any president can do is encourage the former by maintaining open channels with both parties while probing for signs of opportunity.