PRESIDENT Barack Obama made his first official visit to Israel last week. Did you even notice? You can be forgiven if you didn’t, because although some pundits called the visit "historic" it barely made headlines anywhere. Just the occasional formal picture of an obligatory ritual, signifying nothing. What the Americans call boilerplate.
The contrast between this visit and Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009, when he was still a presidential candidate, was sharp. Then he demanded an end to Israeli settlements in the West Bank and called for the establishment of a viable Palestinian state.
This time he gushed warmth, pledged unbreakable US support for Israel and pleaded with it to ease up on settlements as an incentive to — yes, you’ve guessed it — return to the "peace process", that fantasy exercise that has been going on intermittently and unproductively for 22 years and has become the big cover-up for doing nothing.
All this in the face of a stepping up of Israeli settlements in what is supposed to be Palestinian territory under the leadership of an increasingly right-wing prime minister at the head of a new multiparty coalition almost devoid of anyone resembling a liberal. The old, reasonably liberal Labour Party of the early years looks dead as a dodo, leaving the hawks on the wing, thanks to a huge influx of Russian immigrants who have distorted the balance of the Israeli electorate.
The reasons for Obama’s change of tone are easy to understand. A recent poll showed that 64% of Americans strongly support Israel, with an even higher percentage among Republicans. Faced with a weakened economy as a result of George W Bush’s disastrous Middle East wars, Obama desperately needs some Republican votes to get his budget through Congress. He can’t afford to alienate any by increasing pressure on Israel. Thus the extent to which Israel has become a domestic political issue in the US.
Obama is also eager to disengage from costly foreign engagements, especially in the Middle East. To that end he has managed, albeit with difficulty, to withdraw from Bush’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; he avoided getting militarily involved in the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions; played a limited role in the Libyan eruption; has kept out of the Syrian quagmire; and has resisted bellicose calls from Netanyahu and Republican hawks back home to attack Iran.
Behind this reticence lies a hugely significant fact that has attracted surprisingly little international attention as yet. The US is becoming less and less dependent on Middle East oil. Its own domestic production is being rapidly increased by new offshore oil finds and shale gas production, to the point where by 2017 — in just four years’ time — the US will once again be the world’s biggest oil producer.
Together with Mexico and Canada it will replace Saudi Arabia — so why bother about Saudi Arabia anymore?
As US oil imports from the Middle East shrink, the amount imported by economically burgeoning Asia will increase. An article in this month’s authoritative US magazine, Foreign Affairs, reveals that China has just overtaken the US as the world’s largest net oil importer.
This points to a major shift about to take place in the geopolitics of the world. Or, as the author of the article, energy consultant Robin M Mills, puts it, "a shift as momentous as the US eclipse of the British Royal Navy, or the American economy’s surpassing of the British economy in the late 19th century".
What it portends is that the Middle East will become economically more important to China than it is to the US. Which in turn means China will become ever more concerned about keeping on good terms with the Arab world rather than with Israel, with which it has no special relationship. One would have thought that might be a prospect of some concern to the Jewish state.
Yet I wonder how many members of the new Israeli cabinet, not least Netanyahu himself, have taken account of it.
Some other shifts in the Middle East seem to have emboldened them. Initially the eruptions that produced the Arab Spring caused nervousness, as Israelis watched the electoral successes of the Muslim Brotherhood across their border in Egypt. But Egypt’s newly elected President Mohamed Mursi soon eased those Israeli fears as his autocratic decree giving himself unlimited powers brought the protesters back to Tahrir Square.
In addition, US-initiated sanctions against Iran have weakened Israel’s most serious regional enemy and may yet remove the threat of Tehran acquiring nuclear weapons. At the same time the crippling civil war in Syria has severed the threat of what was called a "Shiite Crescent" running from Iran through Syria to Lebanon, which was used as a route for conveying Iranian weaponry to Hezbollah guerrillas based in the Levantine state.
No doubt it was this diminution of external threats, coupled with Obama’s reluctance to re-engage with the Middle East during his re-election campaign last year, that emboldened Netanyahu to step up his drive to establish more settlements in the West Bank.
The pious protestations of the US and other Western powers of support for a "two-state solution" to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict began after the 1991 Madrid peace conference, which led to the Oslo accords two years later. At that time there were 200,000 Israeli settlers living illegally in what was supposed to become that Palestinian state. Since then the number has doubled.
Four American presidents, supposedly acting as honest brokers, have done nothing to stop this incremental annexation of the very land on which the two-state solution is supposed to be based.
Now Netanyahu has authorised another huge expansion of settlements, including one that will effectively cut the putative Palestinian state in two and prevent its people from reaching their capital, East Jerusalem. As it is, a whole generation of Palestinians have not been able to visit Jerusalem, enter Israel or travel between the West Bank and Gaza.
Israelis and their lobbyists object vehemently to the suggestion that this ghettoing of the Palestinian people into unviable bantustans amounts to an Israeli version of apartheid. But they have yet to explain the purpose of the settlements if it is not pure territorial annexation to create the biblical Eretz Yisrael, or the Whole of Israel, as defined in the founding document of Netanyahu’s Likud Party.
Regardless of Obama’s retreat, such a course is unsustainable for the Jewish state, as former foreign minister Tzipi Livni tried to warn before the Israeli election in January. Annexing land means annexing the people on that land and there are 5-million Palestinians living in a state of subjugation or exile, plus 1.2-million as second-class citizens inside Israel.
That far outnumbers Israel’s Jewish population, and will increase exponentially over time. Israel has always proclaimed its intention to be a Jewish state and a democracy, but the course it is on renders those conditions incompatible. In apparent anticipation of this Netanyahu’s party last week signed a coalition agreement calling for a bill for a Basic Law that would make Israel "Jewish first, democratic second". If enacted, that will complete the picture.
• Sparks is a veteran journalist and political analyst.