international analysis and commentary

Obama in the Middle East: in search of a breakthrough


President Barack Obama’s second year in office began with no indication that Arab-Israeli peace would figure prominently on his foreign policy agenda. Declining approval numbers, coupled with the burden of passing a health care bill, meant that Obama lacked the political capital necessary to take substantive steps on the peace process.

By March, Obama’s sole achievement had been an agreement for US mediated “indirect talks” between Israel and the PLO, in addition to an Israeli commitment to “temporarily” suspend settlement building in the West Bank. Undermining the US administration’s diplomatic initiative, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu insisted that “substantive” issues concerning security and territorial status should not be part of the talks. Without an alternative, Obama reluctantly agreed.

Joe Biden’s visit to Israel: a new momentum
Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to Israel in March was expected to symbolize the administration’s growing support for the new round of indirect peace talks. Biden was also expected to allay Israeli fears about Iran’s nuclear program. The Obama foreign policy team did not expect a major breakthrough to result from Biden’s visit.

On the first day, the Israeli Interior Ministry announced the construction of 1,600 additional units in occupied East Jerusalem, a highly contentious issue in the peace process. Shocked by the announcement, Biden and the White House swiftly condemned the Israeli move as an impediment to peace. Although Netanyahu apologized for the poor timing and claimed that it was accidental, his words fell on deaf ears in the White House, especially after he declared that construction of settlements would continue as planned.

In a direct and lengthy phone call with Netanyahu, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed the administration’s deep concern and displeasure with Israel’s announcement. According to State Department spokesperson, P.J. Crowley, the Secretary made it “clear that the United States considered the announcement to be a deeply negative signal about Israel’s approach to the bilateral relationship and counter to the spirit of the Vice President’s trip.” That same day, the Quartet released a statement condemning Israel’s move as undermining the peace process.

The administration kept pressure on Netanyahu with Obama’s most senior advisor, David Axelrod, firing a powerful salvo. “This [the settlement announcement in East Jerusalem] was an affront, it was an insult but most importantly it undermined this very fragile effort to bring peace to that region,” said Axelrod.

Speaking at AIPAC, the pro-Israeli power house in Washington, Netanyahu was defiant: “The Jewish people were building Jerusalem 3,000 years ago and the Jewish people are building Jerusalem today.”

Obama Turns up the Heat on Netanyahu
While in Washington, Obama held a meeting with Netanyahu at the White House to try to find common ground and to improve US-Israeli relations after a tense few weeks. The meeting was brief and futile, with Obama supposedly still angry about the ill-timed announcement of new Israeli settlements during Biden’s visit. The President reportedly outlined a series of benchmarks which Israel would need to restart the peace talks. These included the extension of the West Bank suspension of settlements, the cessation of construction in East Jerusalem and the withdrawal of Israeli forces from occupied Palestinian territories. Furthermore, Obama sought Netanyahu’s approval for the indirect talks to focus on “substantive issues,” such as security and territorial status questions.

Netanyahu refused all of Obama’s demands, choosing instead to argue that his hands were tied.

After his return to Israel, Netanyahu met with his senior ministers for five hours to discuss Obama’s demands. There was no public announcement afterwards. Netanyahu’s office released a short statement, saying “The Prime Minister’s position is that there is no change in Israeli policy on Jerusalem”.  Netanyahu is still unyielding.

The inconclusive nature of US-Israeli bargaining raises several questions on the future of relations between the Obama administration and the Netanyahu-led government. What does the new US posture mean? Does it signal a more muscular and aggressive approach toward Israel? Has Obama concluded that he cannot work with Israel’s right-wing coalition?

Congress vs. the presidency
In glaring contrast to Obama’s icy demeanor toward Netanyahu, Congress warmly embraced the Israeli Prime Minister. In a press-filled event attended by the leadership of the Republican and Democratic parties after Netanyahu’s meeting with Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a Democrat and an Obama ally, told Netanyahu that “We in Congress stand by Israel. In Congress we speak with one voice on the subject of Israel,” a rare example of congressional bipartisanship in stark contrast to the White House stance.

Nita Lowey, a congresswoman overseeing foreign aid appropriations to Israel (about 3 billion dollars a year) reassured the Israeli leadership that the 10-year memorandum of understanding (30 billion dollars) is solid. “There is strong bipartisan support for Israel in the Congress that will not falter,” stressed Lowey. Siding with Netanyahu against her own president, she sarcastically asked, “How can he go to the end stage of any discussion and give away the store in the middle of a negotiation?”

Pelosi and Lowey’s pronouncements show clearly the complexity of the US political system and the domestic challenges facing Obama in his effort to advance peace in the Middle East. When it comes to US foreign policy in the Arab-Israeli arena, Congress fetters the President’s hands and limits his options. The presidency is a very powerful institution but Congress yields considerable power and influence, particularly on the Arab-Israeli conflict because it speaks with “one voice,” as Pelosi bluntly put it.

In the case of Obama, some of his closest allies, like Pelosi, would desert him if he decides to exert real pressure on Netanyahu and threatens to withhold the billions of dollars in US military and financial aid to Israel. Although in the final analysis, Obama would be able to carry such a policy through, but it would be too costly politically, and he would sacrifice other important policy priorities.

Instead of a frontal assault on Netanyahu, Obama is more likely to wage an encirclement manoeuvre and raise the stakes for him at home. It is a slow, gradual, and unpredictable campaign whose outcome is unknown.

Obama has forced Netanyahu to clarify his government’s position on settlement and exposed his unwillingness to abide by international consensus. What he has done is produce a moment of clarity. The international community knows that the right-wing governing coalition in Israel, not the Palestinian Authority, is blocking the start of peace negotiations. Israel is on the defensive and faces international scrutiny.

It remains to be seen if the Obama foreign policy team will offer its own proposed parameters for an eventual Palestinian state. The perception among Arabs and Muslims that the US is biased towards Israel has been further reinforced.

In the early days of the second year of his presidency, Obama has already further dashed the expectations and high hopes of the Arab world. In an interview with Time magazine, Obama surprised his interviewer when pressed on the Israeli-Palestinian issue: “This is just really hard… and if we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.”

A year after his inauguration, the future of the relationship between the US and the Islamic world seems uncertain. One hopes that Obama’s recognition of the complexities of the region will lead to a wiser policy, and that the Arabs and Muslims cannot rely on Obama’s goodwill to deliver on his promises. They must take concrete steps to influence US foreign policy if they wish to bring about lasting change in the region, such as laying out what a comprehensive settlement entails in terms of ending the state of war and normalization of relations.

Obama’s next steps will be crucial in potentially resolving this stalemate. A more honest and frank US relationship with Israel, as well as a more transparent relationship with the Arab world based on common and mutual interests, not political expediency, would be a powerful legacy for the new African-American President.

Yet if Obama shies away from directly confronting this challenge, he risks permanently rupturing America’s relationship with the Arab and Muslim world. His actions will have a far more lasting impact than any words he spoke in Cairo last June.