Savir's Corner: Obama’s 2nd term and the Middle East

Obama’s campaign slogan for 2012 is “Forward.” and it seems that forward he may move.

US President Obama with PM Netanyahu at White House 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
US President Obama with PM Netanyahu at White House 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Ibraheem Abu Mustafa)
In November, we will know if there will be four more years in the White House for the first African-American president, Barack Obama, or if the party of George Bush Sr. and Jr. will succeed in propelling Mitt Romney into the Oval Office.
According to recent polls, it seems that while Americans are concerned with the economic situation, unemployment and healthcare costs, they tend to believe, by a margin of 5 percent- 10%, that Obama rescued the American economy after the historic crises of the 2008 recession.
By the same margin, including in the important swing states such as Florida and Iowa, Americans believe that Obama should be given a chance to complete his social and economic agenda, and they support his foreign and security policies of putting an end to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, while combatting terror.
It is therefore to be believed that Obama will be reelected in November. While the election campaign and agenda is mainly domestic, the United States between 2013 and 2017 will mainly have to contend with a dramatically changing world, which also will affect the American economy and the country’s security.
As Israelis we should ask ourselves what a second Obama term should look like in the region and what our policy should be toward our main strategic ally. The world of 2013 is in many ways very different than the world of 2009 when Obama’s first term in office began.
The world has fundamentally changed as a result of the technology and information revolutions.
Due to widespread use of the Internet, which has become the main means of communication – 80% usage in the US, 65% in Europe, 35% in the Middle East – the world is far more connected than ever.
Individuals, especially the young generation, are communicating on a daily basis on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, across all corners of the globe.
They express values, experiences, cultural characteristics, common agendas and aims and are creating value- and interest-driven communities. The private sector is likewise using the Internet to broaden its customer base. This has led to greater globalization on one side and greater empowerment of the individual on the other. In the middle, governments have become less relevant, governance has become much more difficult and dictatorship virtually impossible. Modern communication and new media are used effectively, both for positive change and for spreading hate and danger. The world is no more merely a fragmented family of nations, but rather a diversified mosaic of communities and individuals.
It is a world in need of a new kind of leadership that can create an innovative interaction with national and global constituencies and that can effect positive change with them, especially the young generation. This is definitely true for the Middle East. As we witnessed during the Arab Spring, the young of the Tahrir and Jasmine revolutions brought down dictators and powerful armies. It is an ongoing process, so far exploited by two forces: the Islamist parties (mostly linked to the Muslim Brotherhood) and young students and liberals (less organized than the Brothers, but a powerful force to be contended with).
This is particularly true for the most important Arab country, Egypt, with President Mohamed Morsy completing the revolution by sidelining the army and facing the most severe economic poverty and unemployment, with a young generation waiting impatiently to reap the fruits of the revolution.
The other most important challenges stem from the biggest and smallest regional powers: Iran and Palestine. Iran of Ali Khamenei is stirring for regional hegemony of its backward fundamental Islamist doctrine, through terror and the development of nuclear weapons, despite growing disillusionment inside the country.
Iran must be stopped and only the United States can achieve this strategic goal.
Palestine, of a relatively secular West Bank and a Hamas Gaza Strip, is yearning for statehood, and an end to Israeli occupation.
The Palestinians deserve a state, a peaceful and democratic one living side by side in security with Israel, and only through American leadership can this be achieved.
Therefore in the likely occurrence of a Barack Obama second term, it is to be hoped for that Obama 2013-2017 will adopt policies to meet the new challenges of a changing world and Middle Eastern region. The American president, as the leader of the Free World, will have to be very attentive to the fundamental changes in international relations.
It must be clear to him that he cannot internationally dictate his will by force or unilateral actions. To a large degree the world, and the Middle East for that matter, has become a world of the people. Alliances with governments will not suffice, they need to be legitimized by the people.
Here Obama still must come a long way in order to create a regional discourse and dialogue with the region’s young generation – 60% of its population – listening and respecting their value systems and needs on one side and on the other making demands, mainly on democratization and respect for human rights. Speeches at the UN or at universities will not suffice; he must also connect on the innovative means of communication – the social networks. The needs of the young in our region are mostly related to socioeconomic interests, jobs, education, skill development, hi-tech innovation and partnership with the international community. Obama needs to understand that NATO alone or the Sixth Fleet are not sufficient to protect American regional interests. An economic alliance between the G8 and the Middle East is necessary, a kind of “economic NATO” to make international aid much more adaptable to the needs of a young generation.
Barack Obama is indeed the man for such a tall order. He is in many ways the first American “Facebook” president, he understands the need to be attentive to the people, not just political leaders.
Obama has a rare skill among important leaders – he listens.
On the Iranian issue, which is the most important security challenge to American strategic interests, Obama combines the needs of anti-Iran international coalition- building vis-à-vis China and Russia with tough steps against Tehran becoming a military nuclear power. Sanctions and boycotts have to be made more potent and crippling, offers need to be made, a radio voice of the people of Iran should be transmitted to support an internal opposition movement and, as a last resort, a military option against Iran should not be ruled out. A change of regime in Damascus will be conducive to the isolation of Tehran and should be encouraged.
As a world leader Obama has shown the right capacities for such a strong and somewhat complex strategy. He objects by ideology to the proliferation of non-conventional weapons, he is tough when it comes to fighting terror – see Osama bin Laden – he is a great believer in multilateral diplomacy in a multi-polar world and, for us most important, he is fully committed to the security of Israel and has brought defense relations between the two countries to new heights.
On the Israeli-Palestinian issue, Obama in his first term has failed to bring about direct negotiations or the conditions necessary for progress toward a permanent-status solution. The fact that the Israeli “pro-settlement” government and the Palestinian “pro- UN” government were not helpful is an understatement.
Yet the American president must and probably does understand that for all Arabs, and most Muslims, the Palestinian issue is a core issue, maybe not strategically, but certainly when it comes to the hearts and minds of the Arab constituency; therefore substantial progress toward a two-state solution is critical to American policy in the region. Obama II must, and probably will, have a pro-active policy on the matter.
As for Israel, we need to prepare ourselves and our policies for such a likely eventuality, despite the Republican preferences of Binyamin Netanyahu and his friend Sheldon Adelson. This means being ready to be part of an American-led coalition on Iran, as courageously proposed by President Shimon Peres, and being fully coordinated with Washington, as of now, on its Middle East policy, including regarding realistic positions on the Palestinian issue.
Obama’s campaign slogan for 2012 is “Forward.” and it seems that forward he may move. In 2008 it was “Yes We Can,” but in 2013, in a changed world, he must prove that indeed he can.
The writer is president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.