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Obama’s Chance for Middle East Peace

STOCKHOLM – Next year marks the centennial of the Balfour Declaration, the British statement that paved the way for Israel’s founding in 1948, and for the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as the larger Arab world, that continues today.

World leaders gathering in New York for the United Nations General Assembly probably won’t have time to discuss this perennial political challenge. But, despite all of the Middle East’s other – and seemingly bigger – problems, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the lynchpin issue that will determine whether the region’s future will be one of peace and prosperity.

The conflict – whether it is resolved or not – will also help define US President Barack Obama’s foreign-policy legacy. As Obama’s second term nears its end, it is worth recalling that when he came to office in 2009, he sought rapprochement with the wider Muslim world. In his historic Cairo speech in June of that year, he described the Palestinians’ situation as “intolerable” and promised to pursue – “with all the patience and dedication that the task requires” – a policy of “two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security.”

Obama has made very little progress on this issue since then, though not for lack of trying. During Obama’s first term, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu and Republicans in the US Congress united against him to derail any meaningful peace efforts. And during his second term, his secretary of state, John Kerry, led a heroic nine-month effort – involving almost a hundred bilateral meetings with Israeli and Palestinian leaders – that simply petered out.