The defeat of US President Barack Obama by Israel’s Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu over the question of West Bank settlements has delivered a shock to the international system.
Netanyahu was able to brush aside Obama’s repeated requests to freeze settlement expansion largely because of the influence of Israel’s friends inside the US political system—an influence which has now been enhanced by the gains of right-wing, pro-Israel Republicans in last month’s US Congressional elections.
Outside of the United States, there’s been widespread amazement and alarm at this latest setback to US Middle East diplomacy—and to Obama personally—which has prompted a rethink of what can realistically be expected from Washington in the coming year to help resolve the long-running Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Indeed, there’s a growing tendency in the European Union and Russia to challenge the US monopoly of the Arab-Israeli peace-process, which has proved ineffective, and to demand firm joint action.
Already, 26 former European leaders have sent a letter to EU President Van Rompuy and Vice-President Catherine Ashton calling on the European Union to make comprehensive proposals for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, including a clear time-frame and terms of reference.
This is hardly surprising—if the Arab-Israeli conflict isn’t resolved, and if Israeli expansion at the expense of the Palestinians continues unchecked, there’s widespread fear that Islamic extremism will flourish, and with it, terrorist assaults on Western cities.
Russian impatience with the United States has also become increasingly clear, and was underscored by leading Russian experts at a two-day conference on the Arab-Israeli conflict held in Malta at the weekend. The meeting was attended by a strong contingent of Russian Middle East experts, including former Russian Foreign Minister and Prime Minister Yevgeny Primakov; Mikhail Margelov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Federation’s parliament; Vitaly Naumkin, director of the Institute of Oriental Studies in the Russian Academy of Sciences; as well as many other officials, ambassadors and journalists. It was also striking how many of these Russians were fluent Arabic speakers.
Several dozen participants from the Arab world, Israel, the United States and Europe also attended the conference, which was organised by the Valdai Discussion Club—an initiative launched by RIA Novosti and the Russian Council for Foreign and Defence Policythat also appears to have the strong backing of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin himself.