Obama and the Middle East

Benjamin Netanyahu
Benjamin Netanyahu; drawing by John Springs


By virtually every measure—name, race, origins, and upbringing—Barack Hussein Obama was a revolutionary presidential candidate. In Mideast policy at least, there is little reason to imagine that he will be a revolutionary president. The radical break with traditional US policy came with the Bush administration, during which the US invaded and then occupied Iraq, shunned Syria, and engaged in an effort, at once ambitious and irresponsible, to reshape the region. Bush’s presidency represented an upheaval because it was both guided and blinded by a rigid ideological outlook and because of its uncommon proclivity to choose military over diplomatic means. Obama’s first step will be to close that stormy parenthesis. It will be no small achievement.

His own agenda for the Middle East is at the center of greater speculation, and at the heart of that speculation is the question of the Israeli–Palestinian conflict. There are signs—the fact that they are taking their time, reviewing their policies, consulting broadly—that the President and his team are committed to pragmatism and patience, qualities they found wanting in Bush’s rash attempt to impose a new order on the Middle East but also in Bill Clinton’s impetuous efforts to reach a comprehensive settlement. Their focus, at the outset at least, likely will be on improving conditions on the ground, including the West Bank economy, curbing if not halting Israeli settlement construction, pursuing reform of Palestinian security forces, and improving relations between Israel and Arab countries.

But there also are hints of a grand ambition biding its time. Obama has not staked his presidency on resolving the conflict, but he has not shied away from the challenge either. Judging by what the new president and his colleagues have suggested, attending to the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is a matter of US national interest. The administration seems prepared to devote considerable diplomatic, economic, and, perhaps, political capital to that end. And the goal, once the ground has been settled, will be to achieve a comprehensive, two-state solution.

At first glance, there’s more reason to be confounded than convinced. If such is the President’s objective, it will be pursued under unusually inauspicious circumstances. In Israel, a prime minister, Ehud Olmert, who never tired of reiterating his commitment to a Palestinian state has been replaced by one, Benjamin Netanyahu, who can barely bring himself to utter the words. His coalition partners—a mix of right-wing, xenophobic, and religious parties—make matters worse. Even the participation of Ehud Barak and his Labor party in the coalition is of scant comfort. Barak was prime minister when Israeli–Palestinian negotiations collapsed at the Camp David summit in 2000; the principal lesson he seems to have drawn is to distrust all things Palestinian. As defense minister under Olmert, he barely concealed his disdain for the talks the Palestinians conducted with his own government, dismissing them as an “academic seminar.” It is hard to imagine this new coalition going further…

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