Europe's Obama cheers ring hollow in the Middle East

What a contrast. In western Europe Obama-mania is in full flood, epitomised by raving crowds in Berlin last night as well as the polls which show the Democratic candidate to be far more popular than John McCain in almost every country. In Israel he is met with apprehension, and in the Palestinian territories there is only the faintest hope that the deadlocked conflict will ever end.

The difference is that Europeans know the American president holds the keys to war or peace. He has enormous influence in dragging European governments after him, as the disastrous Iraq adventure showed. So it is not surprising that many Europeans are crying out for a man in the White House who will be less aggressive, less unilateral, less imperial, and more attuned to the complexities of international policy. Obama seems to be the one.

In the Middle East the US leader has much less power. Israel calls the shots, and what's happening on the ground is deeply gloomy and anti-peace. The chances of creating a viable Palestinian state have almost vanished as Israeli settlements on the West Bank go on increasing and yet more checkpoints appear.

No wonder that, while they like Obama more than McCain, Palestinians feel little optimism. "Obama might create a different atmosphere," says Yasser Abed Rabo, the secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, stressing the "might". "Bush polarised things between him and Osama bin Laden. The moderates were the big losers. People in the middle felt crushed," he argues.

Others expect Obama will take time to focus on the Middle East in spite of his promise this week to be engaged in peace from day one. "He'll concentrate first on Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, and the economy, which all matter more for Americans," an adviser to the Palestinian negotiating team told me.

His visit to the Israeli border town of Sderot was one-sided, not just because he did not balance it with visits to places where Palestinians are oppressed. Sderot is more than a place under threat of terror. It is a model for how ceasefires are negotiable, and why they are the vital first step towards any serious peace agreement. Yet Obama ignored the point.

"Why have a ceasefire in Gaza, but not one in the West Bank? Do they want us to develop missiles and rockets here before we can have a ceasefire?" asks Mustafa Barghouti, one of the most respected independents in the Palestinian parliament. He points to the spate of arrests by Israeli troops in recent weeks in Nablus, Hebron and Jenin, which have gone virtually unreported. The Israelis conduct almost nightly raids on schools, clinics and charities, seizing files, computers, and patients' records.

Since Bush's Annapolis conference no progress has been made. In spite of a half a dozen meetings with Mahmoud Abbas, the Israeli prime minister Ehud Olmert refuses to put forward drafts for the framework deal that Bush wanted to see signed before he leaves office. It is all talk but no work. Going against peace, another 9,700 housing units for settlers have been announced for East Jerusalem, compared with 1,600 in the previous four years. Eighty-six new checkpoints have gone up in the West Bank. Meanwhile the EU chooses this moment to upgrade its cultural and economic relations with Israel, forfeiting the little leverage it has.

What could Obama do as president? Watching the candidate with Israel's president Shimon Peres in Jerusalem this week, it was hard not to be touched by the younger man's grace. As they strolled across the lawn before making press statements, Obama inclined his head and put his hand gently on Peres's back like a respectful son or even grandson. Peres repaid the compliment, all but endorsing Obama. "I've read both your books and was impressed by their moving humanity ... Those who say the future belongs to the young are wrong. The present belongs to the young."

The encounter had something of the Eisenhower-Kennedy moment in January 1961, when the torch was handed from one generation to another at Kennedy's swearing-in. Of course Peres is not an outgoing US president and Obama is not yet an incoming one. Israel is not going to cede power over its destiny to the US, however dependent it traditionally has been.

The chances of a settlement have never been bleaker. The Palestinians are deeply split between Fatah and Hamas, and without unity there is no way Abbas can pretend to reach a deal with Israel. In Israel every politician is a hardliner, whether Kadima, Labour or Likud. "Olmert is playing a game of deception when he says peace is close. The negotiations are going in circles. Nothing is moving forward, except the confiscation of land, the expansion of the Wall, and the building of industrial zones round the settlements. You can't trust them to want a deal this year, next year or any year," says Rabo.

On both sides the public mood is grim. Israeli attitudes towards the Palestinians are built on fear - all-pervasive and sometimes turning into panic. Palestinians are consumed with anger, rekindled by every new injustice - an anger that sometimes turns to rage. It is no coincidence that this year's attacks on Israelis in Jerusalem, the two bulldozer incidents and the shooting of eight people at a yeshiva (school) in March, were done by Palestinians not connected to any militia group. Private rage just boiled over.

Faced by Israeli intransigence, no US president can do much. Perhaps the only thing Obama could do is to work on the Palestinians. If he helps end the futile boycott and demonisation of Hamas, he will cease playing the Israeli game and help the Palestinians re-create a united front. It would be a step forward, though not enough for peace. The Israelis are not ready, whatever they say.

Jonathan Steele