By Habib Fowzi
Tel Aviv is the first important point in the United States foreign policy where political observers try to assess the consequences of the recent US presidential election which was held on November 6, 2012. The high-ranking officials of Israel are wondering what approach will Obama take as the dominant approach of the United States’ foreign policy during his second term in office as president: will he choose for diplomacy and interaction, or give priority to confrontation and pressure?
As a result of this situation, the Arabs and Israelis are following the outlook of the United States’ foreign policy during Obama’s second term as president, with a common question in mind.
For the United States, which has already gone through to costly and bloody wars in the Middle East over the past decade, the political disputes in this region are in fact the toughest tests that the United States president will be taking in terms of foreign policy decisions. Current conditions which are now governing the Middle East as a result of what has happened in this region during the past two years are very different from the situation at the beginning of his first term. Four years ago, when Obama came to power following presidential polls in 2008, the main issue in the Middle East for the United States was simply how to manage two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in addition to challenges related to the process of peace in the Middle East. Now, however, Islamic and Arab movements and revolutions have totally changed the political structure of this strategic region.
Most observers believe that during his first term in office, Obama did not pass the crucial test with regard to ending the 60-year conflict between Palestinians and Israel. He tried his chance in this political minefield during his early days in office. Soon after he was elected president, he promised to stop Israel’s expansionist policies especially in the field of building new Zionist settlements, but he failed to fulfill that promise as a result of the opposition of Tel Aviv officials, and this was recorded as the first failure in his first term as the United States president.
It would suffice to remember that Obama made his first international phone call to Mahmoud Abbas, the President of the Palestinian Authority about four years ago, and after that he called the then leaders of Israel, Egypt and Jordan.
During his early days of presence at the White House, Obama appointed George Mitchell, a seasoned diplomat who had played a very effective role in pulling off the cease-fire in Northern Ireland, as his special envoy to the Middle East.
American analysts, however, noted from the very beginning of his mission that due to empowerment of radical politicians in Tel Aviv, Obama’s envoy had been actually assigned to “mission impossible.” The new Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was leading a coalition of radical Israeli politicians, opposed any kind of restriction or limitation on Tel Aviv’s expansionist policies. In this way, the radical leaders in Tel Aviv dragged George Mitchell into an actual diplomatic quagmire.
After the failure of Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, the relations between Israeli’s ruling party and Obama entered a new phase of tension, distrust and suspicion and that distrust continued until the final days of Obama’s first presidential term.
During this period, Tel Aviv leaders spared no effort to take open swipes at Obama’s policies. The most severe reaction shown by Tel Aviv to Obama’s foreign policy approaches was shown after the US president’s famous address at Cairo University during his visit to Egypt. In that address on June 4, 2009, Obama said, “On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people — Muslims and Christians — have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. For more than 60 years they’ve endured the pain of dislocation.
Many wait in refugee camps in the West Bank, Gaza, and neighboring lands for a life of peace and security that they have never been able to lead. They endure the daily humiliations — large and small — that come with occupation. So let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable. And America will not turn its backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
Meanwhile, the United States’ former ambassador to Tel Aviv, Martin Indyk, has been quoted as saying that instead of building trust between the two sides, namely Washington and Tel Aviv, Obama just raised the expectations of the Arabs and the Palestinian side; expectations that he was not able to meet.
It was in that period of distrust and tug of war between Obama and Netanyahu that Tel Aviv recklessly embarked on humiliating Obama’s Cabinet members. When the US Vice President Joe Biden arrived in Tel Aviv for an official visit in March 2010, the Israeli Interior Ministry issued necessary permit for the construction of 1,600 new Zionist settlement units in the occupied territories on the West Bank of the Jordan River. That measure, which amounted to humiliation of Biden, caused further tension in relations between the two countries.
The main problem which faced Obama in the final months of his presidency was that to gain the support of the US Jewish lobby, he was forced to go back over previous plans which he had already presented for the modification of Tel Aviv’s treatment of the Arabs and Palestinians. Before long, he totally forgot that he had promised establishment of an independent Palestinian state during the United Nations General Assembly meeting in September 2010.
The resistance of officials of the Israeli government and pressures from their affiliated lobbies in Washington forced the White House into a shameful withdrawal. The US withdrawal continued right up to February 2011, when the White House vetoed a resolution by the United Nations Security Council which condemned continuation of settlement building on the occupied Palestinian lands.
As the presidential election in 2012 approached, Obama distanced more and more from promises he had previously given the Arabs and Palestinians. The positions he took in his third year in office during an address to the annual meeting of the United Nations General Assembly, conveyed the message that the US leader, who once claimed to be bent on bringing change to the Middle East, could not do anything more. During that address, Obama stated that there was no shortcut to the termination of a dispute which had been raging on for decades. He added that it was up to Palestinians and Israelis, not the Americans, to find a solution for that dispute.
Early in his presidential hustings, Obama explicitly admitted to the failure of his ideas about the Middle East conflict and the peace process, saying that the things he could do without the support of the Congress were mostly related to the foreign policy. He then admitted that he had not been successful in that field and had not been able to promote the Middle East peace process in the way he wanted to do.
The question now is will the deadlock which is currently plaguing the Democrats finally break, and does Obama basically have a plan to change the political balance between Israelis and Palestinians?
In one of his election debates, Obama tried to distance from policies which his predecessor, George W. Bush, had adopted for the Middle East. He even went as far as reminding his Republican contestant, Mitt Romney, that he [Romney] has begged for money and vote with the American Jewish lobby in order to win the election.
However, Obama had taken a similar categorical position; that is, negating George Bush’s policies, four years ago as well. Therefore, it goes without saying that by merely distancing from Bush’s Middle East policy, or using a neutral literature about the conflict in the Middle East, he will not be able to solve the problem in this hectic region.
As a result, some Middle East observers maintain that given Obama’s current understanding of and experience with the decision-makers in Tel Aviv, he would not be able to suffice to changing his tone or using pacifist literature anymore. They argue that the US president is no more wary about losing the votes of the Jewish lobby as he is not supposed to run for a third term and can, therefore, resort to political and economic leverages in order to make Tel Aviv more aligned with his political ideas.
Some media circles in the United States have claimed that reelection of Obama as the US president should be considered bad news for Tel Aviv leaders. Referring to heavy investment made in the Republicans’ election campaign by the Zionist lobby, they maintain that the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his friends used all the means at their disposal to help Romney win the presidential race. During election campaigns, Obama had made continuation of the United States’ all-out support for the government of Netanyahu conditional on certain changes in Israel’s warmongering policies as well as his government’s stances on the Palestinian Authority or Iran’s nuclear issue. At the same time, his Republican rival, Romney, announced his unbridled support for all adventurist plans of Israel.
In the heat of US election campaigns, Iran’s nuclear case overshadowed relations between Tel Aviv and Obama more than any other issue in the Middle East. During the United Nations General Assembly meeting which was held before the presidential polls in the United States, the US president and Israeli prime minister made speeches which were full of incriminations against the other party. Afterwards and during an election debate, Obama proudly announced that he has successfully prevented a new war over Iran’s nuclear issue. The question, however, is that to what extent, the US president will be able to withstand ambitious demands of Tel Aviv leaders.
In reality, although the results of presidential election on November 6 have, to some extent, determined the fate of the White House chief, they have left the situation of the second most important US decision-making body with regard to the Middle East in limbo: the US Congress. In the new arrangement of the US political power, the Congress is still dominated by those who are loyal allies of Israel. Therefore, even if Obama is dreaming about the implementation and pursuit of a new strategy in the Middle East, he will have to go through the Congress. Due to profound and powerful influence of the pro-Israeli lobby on the Congress, pulling off such a feat by Obama appears to be very difficult, if not impossible at all.