U.S. President Barack Obama glided off the stage to thunderous applause. He had just given a speech that commentators around the world, particularly those in the Muslim world, would characterize within minutes as "historic." "The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable," he said, and promised to "personally pursue" the establishment of a Palestinian state. Then the president left the great hall of Cairo University and entered a smaller room, where seven journalists had gathered: five Muslims, a Christian and a Jew. Speaking to the men and women from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Israel and Malaysia, Obama demonstratively praised Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu: "A very intelligent man, who's easy to talk to. He has a real sense of history. I believe that Netanyahu has recognized the strategic necessity of achieving peace in the Middle East."
As the Israeli reporter, Nachum Barnea, recalls, Obama was "like a teacher, full of knowledge and persuasiveness."
Eight months later, the president was forced to admit that he had not even come close to reaching the goal he had set for himself. "We overestimated our ability to persuade [both sides] to [negotiate]," he told Time reporter Joe Klein in the White House Oval Office in January. "If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high." It was an astonishing admission.
Never before had a US president enjoyed such trust in the Middle East -- and gambled it away in such a short time. Obama has vacillated to an extent that has confused friend and foe alike, even baffling veteran observers of the region.
At first, he called for a complete freeze on Israeli settlements, including in East Jerusalem, an area claimed by the Palestinians. This position applied for a few months, to the delight of the Palestinians and the unease of right-wing conservatives in the Israeli government.
But when Netanyahu refused to comply, Obama took a step back last September, by calling upon the Israelis to exercise "restraint" in building settlements. He forced Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, who, after eight years of policies under former US President George W. Bush, had just become accustomed to an Arab-friendly White House, to shake hands with Israel Prime Minister Netanyahu. Soon afterwards, Netanyahu announced a 10-month halt on settlement construction, but it did not include annexed East Jerusalem and various projects in the West Bank. To the Palestinians' chagrin, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton praised Netanyahu's decision as an exemplary step.
Finally, last Tuesday, US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Jerusalem, where he assured his hosts of Washington's "absolute, total, unvarnished commitment to Israel's security" -- only to discover, hours later, that the Israeli interior ministry had just approved the construction of 1,600 housing units for Jewish settlers in East Jerusalem. Biden was so angry that he showed up an hour-and-a-half late for a dinner with Netanyahu and his wife. "I condemn the decision by the government of Israel to advance planning for new housing units in East Jerusalem," he said afterwards. "It is precisely the kind of step that undermines the trust we need right now."