Almost exactly two years since Obama and Netanyahu first met at the White House the two reunite amid dramatically changed conditions in the Middle East, but with an apparently identical agenda. For Netanyahu the pressing strategic issue for the region was and continues to be the Iranian drive for regional hegemony backed by a nuclear weapon; for the president the issue was and continues to be Palestine and the “peace process.”
According to Reuters, in my opinion, not known as sympathetic or even impartial where Israel is concerned (those doctored photographs taken aboard the blockade-running Turkish ship, Mavi Marmara),Obama used the 2009 visit to publicly announce a major departure from previous American policy by urging “Netanyahu to freeze Jewish settlement building” as a precondition to kick-start the stalled “peace talks.”
Netanyahu was forced to accede to the Obama “pre-condition” and for ten months all settlement building was halted. Abbas failed to take the bait and waited until two weeks before the moratorium was to end to give in to administration pressure and agree to enter talks. But, the Palestinians insisted, he would only talk so long as the moratorium was extended! The Obama pre-condition represented to the Palestinians, I argue, that the president was on their side, would present an American plan and save the Palestinians from responsibility for compromise on such issues as borders, settlements, refugees and, ultimately, the existence of a state of the Jews in Palestine.
Not only did Obama create conditions which painted Israel as obstructionist, thereby losing credibility for the president on the Israel street (any mediator must, at the minimum, at least appear impartial), but lost also was faith in the president (who failed to deliver Israel) on the Palestinian street. Even Abbas, whose Ramleh regime is entirely dependent on the continued largesse feeding the West Bank “miracle” under the stewardship of the US-trained Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, was dismissive of the president. In a Newsweek interview that appeared on 24 April, 2011 the Palestinian lambasted the president: “It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze,” Abbas explained. “I said OK, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it.” The rest is recent history. Abbas is hoping the United Nations will provide that which the president could not or, hopefully, would not: statehood on the cheap. On 27 April Abbas spurned American financial and diplomatic aid by entering into a power-sharing agreement with its Islamist enemy and Iranian proxy, Hamas. And it was announced that the architect of that Palestinian economic miracle, Salam Fayyad, is out as prime minister in the new “coalition.”
And American prestige and influence between the parties is at an all-time low.
And as for Iran, at their 2009 meeting, as reported by Reuters, Obama “sought to reassure Israelis wary about his overtures to Iran that he would not wait indefinitely for diplomatic progress toward curbing Tehran''s nuclear ambitions.” Which, in the end, wait the president did, and did, and did. And the result is that Iranian stature in the region grew with each presidential hesitation. And while there is no way to assess whether or not the Stuxnet action against Iran’s nuclear program is an American, an Israeli, or a cooperative effort of the two; while it is impossible to determine whether the apparently successful cyber-attack was a single foray, or the leading edge of an all-out hi-tech offensive; on the Arab street American lack of resolve in the public contest between the Iranian lion and the American eagle, Iran is the unquestioned victor.
In 2011, I believe it is impossible for even the most partisan defender of Bush to assert that his war on Sadam Hussein achieved anything beyond providing Iran a front line on the borders of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Emirates, with Syria and with Jordan. Bush’s principal adversary in Iraq was always Iran, and Ahmadinejad won. Obama failed to accept Netanyahu’s 2009 warnings (Israel and the Saudis had advised Bush in 2002 that Iran, not Iraq was the principal regional threat!) that the Iranian nuclear threat was the regional strategic imperative. And today, having managed perhaps the impossible by losing the confidence of virtually the entire Arab world by his “well intended” interventions in Egypt and Libya the United States is on the verge of losing the Middle East, lock, stock and barrel. As a result of its regional failures, America’s position as “leader of the Free World” is also fast coming to an end. Certainly the wild and apparently thoughtless adventurism of Bush propelled the United States down this path. Unfortunately his successor, the exact opposite of Bush, turned out to be an overly cautious amateur.
For the Saudis, Obama support for the ouster of Hosni Mubarak of Egypt was the final straw. For the Palestinians, Obama’s failure to “deliver” Israel for a peace on Palestinian terms achieved the same. For Israel… Well Israel has little choice in today’s world but to remain dedicated to the “special relationship.” So while Netanyahu can depend on the president continuing to apply pressure for yet more concessions towards the new Hamas-Fatah alliance; while Obama can be counted on to continue to provide hollow assurances regarding his resolve to contain the Iranian threat (assurances already long dismissed by the Saudis!) Israel has nowhere else to turn. Certainly not to an increasingly hostile and unsympathetic Europe with its resurgence of antisemitism both among the citizenry and within the governments.For better or worse, as go America’s fortunes, so go Israel’s. But maybe, just maybe President Obama will surprise all, demonstrate that he does have the capacity to learn, to change. And maybe, just maybe the meeting between the two leaders will demonstrate that the president has grown beyond his apparently well-intended, but globally disastrous naïve idealism and achieved a grasp of realpolitik, pragmatism as the path to achieve his, and all our dreams for peace and justice for all.