Nice to see George Mitchell hovering in the background as Barack Obama met Israeli PM Binyamin Netanyahu yesterday.

He was looking a bit older than the last time I saw him, but hopefully has the same infinite patience which was so helpful during the Northern Ireland peace talks.

Bringing peace to the Midddle East is in its own way even more difficult than some of the other challenges facing Obama, like the global economy and saving the planet from self-destruction.

But the parallels with Northern Ireland are there. Put crudely, for Israel read the Unionists; for the Palestinians read Sinn Fein; the Brits were the Americans; the Irish the Egyptians; the ‘two-state solution’ an agreeement focussed on the principle of consent to assure the Unionists, and equal rights for Catholics. I’m struggling to decide who the Iranians were.

Like I say, crude, but not so crude as to be parallels without meaning. And here is another one – people said peace could never be brought to Northern Ireland, just as many say it can never come to the Middle East, particularly with a hardliner like Netanyahu in power.

It was good to see Obama giving it a go. Some of the commentators were pointing out his obvious differences with Netanyahu as a bad thing. They were not. They were a sign he is trying to come at this from a different direction, and with greater energy than the Bush Administration, forcing the pace both on settlements and the question of an independent Palestinian state. Given it merely restated his public position, it was not quite as dramatic as TB’s announcement shortly after becoming PM that the government would hold talks with Sinn Fein without the usual preconditions, but with Netanyahu alongside him it felt like the start of something that might just lead somewhere.

Nor will Obama be able to hop on and off planes to Jerusalem the way TB used to shuttle backwards and forwards to Belfast and Dublin, but let’s hope the commitment on display yesterday is there for the duration, whatever the inevitable setbacks along the way.

TB and Bertie Ahern get nothing like the credit they deserve for what has happened in Northern Ireland, and I have long thought that if he is given the chance to make a real difference in his role as Middle East envoy, he will. Up to now, it has felt like he has responsibility without power. Yesterday, just maybe, the plates started to move in different directions.

Both Mitchell, and TB, have a lot of experience of managing that kind of change, when the pieces start to move around the chessboard. Netanyahu is a very tough negotiator. So are the Palestinians. So were David Trimble, Ian Paisley, Gerry Adams et al.

We don’t yet know whether Obama is, but we have a fair idea he will be, and yesterday was a good start. ‘Yes we can.’ It is as good a starting point as anywhere, whatever has gone on before.