Bringing peace to the Middle East was US President Barack Obama's stated foreign policy aim after he took office four years ago. A landmark speech in Egypt in which he reached out to the Islamic world raised hopes of harmony for Israelis and Palestinians. But the impetus quickly fizzled out, there was no significant follow-up mission and in place of hope, there has been tension and distrust. But change is again in the air after Obama started his second term by making Israel his first overseas trip, raising expectations with a series of successes.
He set the right tone in a speech to university students in Jerusalem last Thursday. He won over the audience with rhetoric that was politically astute and broadly empathetic. It took up where he left off in Cairo in June 2009, promising Israel the same support that had been offered to Arabs and Muslims. Later, he showed that he is capable of being a peacemaker by prodding Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to apologise to his Turkish counterpart Recep Tayyip Erdogan for a deadly 2010 raid by Israeli commandos on a ship that had been trying to breach a blockade on Gaza.
US officials set expectations low for the trip to Israel, Palestine and Jordan. The media dubbed it "Operation Desert Schmooze", portraying it as little more than a rescue mission to win back hearts and minds and mend prickly ties with Netanyahu. For Palestinians, there was a chance to re-engage; rockets fired into Gaza from Israel during the visit showed the challenges. With no serious peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians for three years, the pace of Israel's settlement building in the West Bank unabated and the Muslim extremist groups Hamas and Hezbollah a continuing threat to the Jewish state, it is unsurprising that Obama's visit has brought hope.
But only small steps have been taken. The US is well placed to broker a two-state solution. If Obama is to succeed, his trip has to be the first of many. He has said he is a friend of Israelis and Palestinians; if he means what he says, he now has to make a serious and sustained push for peace.