international analysis and commentary

Obama’s win viewed from the Middle East

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Most of the countries in the Mediterranean and North Africa (MENA) region stayed out of the US presidential campaign and avoided taking sides or expressing opinions on Obama’s first term and what a second one might mean for international affairs.

In the past couple of years, many MENA commentators in Washington and elsewhere have expressed disillusionment with the Obama presidency’s foreign policy track record in the region. Three main issues were traditionally pointed out.

The first was the Middle East peace process, which the President tried to accelerate in 2010 by pushing Israel to agree to stop settlement construction, and suffering from a humiliating public refusal from the Israeli leadership. Rather than engaging in secret talks with the two sides, the US diplomacy acted in an over-confident way which alienated the Israeli Prime Minister and much of the political elite and which bore no fruits since it was not followed up by a back-up plan of any sort. The US administration decided to ignore the issue for the remaining two years and leave it to a possible second term.

The second issue was the Cairo speech of June 2009: here again, deeds did not follow words, and relations between the US and the Arab world pretty much remained on the same path, until, alas, the Arab awakening occurred.. This is where the third issue comes into play –  US reactions to the revolutionary changes. Despite supporting the changes, many lamented the slow pace of change of tone and the failure to translate this support into substantial economic aid.

However, bilateral relations between the US and Arab awakening countries (Egypt, Tunisia, Libya) are on a good course, while those with Israel have remained problematic.

Most MENA leaders have welcomed a second Obama term, including the Israeli Prime Minister, who, however, had been supporting the candidacy of Republican candidate Mitt Romney. Prime Minister Netanyahu has clashed several times with the US administration since 2010. In 2012,  Netanyahu, still very popular domestically, tried to shape the US foreign policy agenda of 2012 asking for “red lines” with Iran, accusing the US of refraining from fully endorsing the Israeli security paradigm and threatening to act unilaterally. This, coupled with open criticism to President Obama before, during and after a speech at the US Congress by the Israeli prime minister, led to increasingly cool bilateral relations.

Today the Israeli leadership has greeted Obama’s victory, offering supportive comments albeit with different nuances: Netanyahu said that the “bilateral strategic alliance is stronger than ever”, adding that collaboration will continue in order to ensure “the interests that are vital to the security of Israeli citizens”. The security imperative as a driving consideration, a sort of explicit litmus test and benchmark for any assessment of the next Obama term, was framed by several other Israeli politicians. In addition to President Shimon Peres, among the governing parties’ leaders, only Defense Minister Ehud Barak, added that cooperation between the two countries will hopefully contribute to continue “striving for progress in the peace process”.

On the Palestinian side, chief negotiator Saeb Erekat predictably expressed the hope that within a second term, the US President will be able to substantially help the Palestinian Authority create a state. This echoes other commentators who have recently argued that Obama might be the last US President to be able to push for a two-state solution, mainly for broader political considerations and demographic reasons which will increasingly make the current situation unsustainable and could in the long-run leave as the only option on the table one which is currently disregarded as unfeasible –  a bi-national state. The PA will ask for non-member status at the UN later this month, a move which will be hardly met with support from Washington.

In Egypt, the election was followed closely: Obama has built strong ties with the leadership of the Muslim Brotherhood and the ruling Freedom and Justice Party and economic and military assistance does not differ from the Mubarak era. The US also acts as an informal mediator vis-à-vis the IMF, currently holding talks with the Egyptian authorities for a billion dollar loan. In an official declaration, representatives of the FJP welcomed a second Obama term, remaining vague on the hopes they nurture and expressing their usual mantra framed around the need for Egypt to become a self-reliant nation. In their mindset, the Republicans are still tainted by the George W. Bush legacy of two wars and by having kick-started the global financial crisis.

Many commentators in Egypt and other Arab countries believe that 2011 and 2012 were lost years for the peace process mainly because Israel managed to shift the focus away from Palestine to Iran, imposing a shift of focus of the agenda to a president who did want to re-shift the American foreign policy center of gravity from the Middle East to Asia and who could not implement his pivot to Asia. The question now is whether the second term will see a president eager to diplomatically engage with the intertwined Middle Eastern issues and in a consistent manner (peace process, Iranian nuclear program, Syria’s fate, spread of terrorism), or whether the agenda will be highjacked by only one issue, dealt with in isolation from the others and purely tackled in security rather than political terms.

In Iran, differently from the past, the US electoral campaign has elicited scarce comments and analysis. The state news agency has depicted the US presidential system as un-democratic, while members of the elite have spent their energies denying secret talks with the US over possible negotiations for a “Grand Bargain” over the nuclear program which would include security guarantees for Iran.

The region, in other words, while recognizing the long term importance of this election, has mostly refrained from picking sides and winners, with the notable Israeli exception.  There is full awareness that despite promises, the Republican majority in Congress and the Democrats’ slim majority in the Senate do not bode well for a clear US foreign policy vision: policy choices will most likely be the result of several contending push and pull factors.

 

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