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Obama flirts with Mideast peace push in final months

AFP , Wednesday 21 Sep 2016
President Barack Obama speaks during the Leaders Summit on Refugees during the 71st session of the United Nations General Assembly at UN headquarters, Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2016 (Photo: AP)

When he came to power, he appeared to imply it was one of his priorities. In reality, US President Barack Obama has made less headway than many of his peers trying to achieve Mideast peace.

Now, with just four months remaining in office, is Obama serious about a peace in the Middle East?

No one in Washington was expecting a sudden breakthrough in the stand-off between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government and Mahmoud Abbas' Palestinian authority.

But in New York on Wednesday for the final United Nations General Assembly of his eight-year double term, Obama will meet the Israeli leader, perhaps for the last time.

Will the meeting prove to be another tense footnote to a stalemate, or a last bid to influence a dossier that confronted and disappointed of all his predecessors?

"This would be a declaratory effort to put on record what America believes are the parameters for a solution," argued Aaron David Miller of the Wilson Center.

"And it would be an effort to put the Obama... signature or stamp on an issue that presumably he cares deeply about," the former senior advisor argued.

On January 22, 2009, Obama marked his second day after his swearing in as leader of the Free World by nominating George Mitchell as Middle East peace envoy.

The former senator had been the point man in talks to end Britain's Northern Ireland conflict, and his promotion had been seen as marking the young US leader's seriousness.

The president himself, elected on a vague but inspiring "hope and change" ticket, vowed to "aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians."

Eight years later, that has not come to pass. Israel and its neighbors are enduring a rough patch of political violence, despite high-profile international oversight.

Whatever personal tensions undermine ties between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the leader in the White House enjoys access to a bully pulpit.

Last week, Obama endorsed Israel's record 10-year, $38 billion US military aid contract -- a predictable result of the talks, but one which emphasized tensions.

Does this generous gift give Obama a margin to pressure the Jewish state's government into accepting the groundwork for a future compromise? Well, not quite.

If Obama had wanted to leave Israel-Palestine at the heart of what he has done or not done in office, opponents would have turned it into an election issue.

But Obama's putative Democratic successor Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, the flamboyant Republican challenger to his legacy, have adopted strong immigration policies.

Before his election as US president in December 2000, Bill Clinton also had clear goals for the Middle East: two states alongside one another, with a shared capital in parts of Jerusalem.

"This was done in a low key fashion, with very little media visibility because Clinton honestly still believed there was still a chance to get a deal," Miller said.

Obama however does not have the luxury of hope -- he knows a deal will be difficult to achieve in the waning days of his presidency.

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