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Obama and the Middle East

Article by Rebecca Simon

January 16, 2009

The Middle East was always going to be a priority. As a region it sits at the heart of many of the US’s international concerns – it has an ongoing presence in Iraq and Afghanistan (the later due to take precedence over the former), a vested interest in curbing Iran’s nuclear ambitions, and concerns about ongoing difficulties in Israel-Palestinian peace process. But as President Elect, Obama has been much more vocal about his domestic priorities than his international intentions. He held off commenting on Gaza until pushed so far into a corner that he could not avoid calling for a cessation of violence and committing his forthcoming administration to regional peacekeeping.

Despite his reluctance in the past few months to commit himself to any policy agenda there are already some key indicators as to what to expect from Obama’s administration. The appointment of Senator Clinton as Secretary of State and the retention of Robert Gates as Defence Secretary at the Pentagon is a pretty robust sign that he does not intend to go ‘soft’ or in any way ‘left field’ on the US’s international commitments. America’s global positioning is important and Obama is not so radical as to think this an opportunity for a novice.

For his part Obama has already stated that that the peace process will be a priority for him when coming into office and has said that he will put together a team “who are going to be immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process as a whole.” In this regard the appointment of Clinton was a good one. The left wing intelligentsia on both sides of the pond have expressed concern that she comes with baggage and is hardly the fresh face of change that so much of his campaign promised. However if Obama is to ensure that foreign affairs are not sidelined and de-prioritised amongst urgent domestic concerns, then her experience and confidence will be invaluable. Furthermore the association with her husband’s time in office may actually be a help and not a hindrance. President Clinton understood the regional dynamic as well as anybody and knew how to speak to both sides in a language they understood. Although ultimately unsuccessful in his efforts, Clinton outlined criteria for a two state solution, the so called ‘Clinton Perameters’ that have become accepted wisdom for what a final settlement will look like. Hilary Clinton was an early advocate of Palestinian statehood but at the same time has been continually robust in her commitment to Israel’s security. Whilst her appointment is hardly symbolic of a break with the past she is determined to make her presence felt on the international stage and the Middle East may well set the stage for a formidable performance.

Recent events in Gaza will hopefully ensure that Obama does not repeat the mistakes of his predecessors – namely that no President is able to broker a comprehensive peace in the Middle East if he leaves it to the last year of his administration.

Clinton’s efforts at Camp David attempted too much too late in an effort to salvage some of his reputation as his Presidency came to an end amidst domestic scandal and a whole host of failed international endeavours. Bush’s efforts centred on the Annapolis process which came in the eighth year of a Presidency dogged by wide ranging domestic and global criticism of his conduct in the Middle East as a region. Specifically in the Israel-Palestine conflict Bush turned a blind eye to Israeli settlement expansion and watched Hamas take over the Gaza Strip with no clear strategic thinking on how to handle the crisis. His efforts to try and plaster over all the complications of the conflict by a peace summit in Annapolis never really produced much hope of any meaningful progress. His Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice visited Israel more times in the past year than any of her predecessors but her diplomatic efforts lacked impetus, her limited time in office rendering her ineffective.

Obama has made it clear that he will not procrastinate but before diving head first into the conflict it would be sensible for him to take some time to consider the nuances of American engagement in the region and what kind of ally the US should be. Bush mistakenly assumed that a US hosted summit and a cash injection would bring about change. Top level diplomatic activity is crucial and the Palestinians need financial support, but these interventions need to be coupled with a subtler, incremental approach that recognises the importance of changes on the ground and grass roots progress. Quartet Envoy Tony Blair, the ultimate ‘bigger picture’ politician took no time to realise this when he took up his post and has spent the past year making incremental (but not at all insignificant) changes to ordinary Palestinian lives. The US diplomatic team will have to be willing to get their hands dirty and bang a few heads together if they are going to affect a change in attitude and a commitment to a solution.

To this end we may also see a slight shift in rhetoric and the nature of friendship. Most assume that Obama will not be as emollient towards Israel as some of his predecessors. He is likely to be less tolerant of settlement building, more insistent that humanitarian passages into Gaza are kept open, checkpoints in the West bank contracted and demand Israel fulfil its Road Map obligations. With Obama and Clinton we may see more of the tough love, critical friend and Israel expects as much. I suspect Israel will want its actions in Gaza to be, for the most part, complete by the time the new President takes his oath, in recognition that this may be the dawn of a new era in Middle Eastern politics.

Of course part of this new dawn is the imminent arrival of a new Israeli Prime Minister and Government in the Knesset and with elections pegged for February, the possibility of a right wing Likud/Shas coalition looms large. Popular opinion over Gaza has raised Ehud Barak and Tzipi Livni’s standing in the polls but not fully reversed the inclination to bring back Binyamin Netanyahu. Incidentally this may not be a reflection of Israeli disregard for the peace process – most Israelis accept the inevitability of a two state solution – more likely if Israel do vote for Likud it will represent a sense of urgency and desperation in Israel to get tough on terror and hardline on Iran.

If that is the platform on which Netanyahu is elected then we could see an area of tension between Israel and its most important friend. It is hard to imagine a natural camaraderie between Obama and Netanyahu anyway – they have such divergent politics and may take very different approach to the circumstances required to ensure Israel’s security. Obama has made clear his willingness to talk to an extremely inclusive audience, possibly even Hamas and its Iranian sponsor. He may, find that the realities of the Presidency, the intelligence he will start to receive, and Israeli hostility to these conversations will preclude such daring intentions but the very existence of them constitute a significant sea change from the Bush Administration and will not be welcome in Jerusalem.

Policy over Iran may be where the special relationship between Israel and America falters. I don’t think this will be a significant or fundamental challenge – the friendship is deep and its longevity assured – but Israel and America under Obama may be about to navigate unfamiliar and at times uncomfortable terrain.

The Middle East in notoriously unpredictable as is second guessing a Presidency. 9/11 mapped out an unforeseen course for Bush’s time in office particularly resonant in the Middle East, the election of Hamas mapped out an unforeseen course for the Israel-Palestine conflict. Obama’s Presidency will be peppered with unexpected developments but there are some telling signs that he is set to do things a little differently to what we have seen in the past.

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