Home inFocus Obama’s Journey to Nowhere in the Middle East

Obama’s Journey to Nowhere in the Middle East

Jonathan S. Tobin Spring 2010

While much in the world has changed in the year since Barack Obama took office as president of the United States, some things remain the same. With respect to two of the greatest foreign policy dilemmas faced by the United States – efforts to attain peace in the Middle East and dealing with the nuclear threat from Iran – America and Israel find themselves in virtually the same place they were in January 2009.

In fact, the Palestinian-Israeli peace process almost mirrors the situation of January 2001 – stalled with little or no hope of a diplomatic solution to the conflict on the horizon. With respect to Iran, a year of diplomacy yielded no progress towards either persuading the Islamist regime to abandon its quest for a nuclear capability or amassing international support for a credible sanctions plan that might force Tehran to stand down.

Yet the process by which this stasis has been achieved has been far from a smooth one for Israel. The first year of the Obama administration has been plagued by a fractious relationship with Israel. While the situation never escalated into an all-out confrontation between the two governments, the last 12 months have been marked by bruised feelings on both sides.

As the second year of the Obama presidency begins, the question is not only what lessons were learned from these developments, but also whether the failed initiatives that caused so much angst – while leading nowhere – will lead to more fissures in the U.S.-Israel alliance in the future? Or, will the situation become fraught with even more danger than existed when Obama first took the oath of office?

Obama’s Inheritance

The key to understanding American diplomacy in the Middle East in the last year has been the conviction on the part of the Obama administration that virtually everything produced by its predecessor was flawed. Hence, the campaign promise of “change.” The belief of the president’s staff and supporters was that Obama was burdened with a mess left behind by George W. Bush. This has become a constant refrain on most political matters. When it came to foreign affairs, Bush’s presidency was characterized by his detractors as relying heavily on “cowboy diplomacy” and his penchant for reflexive unilateralism.

As such, the new administration believed the standoff between Israel and the Palestinians, and the lack of progress toward ending Iran’s nuclear program, was largely the result of Bush’s strategic missteps. They further believed that the problem was one of America’s negative image in the Middle East. It was thought that once Arabs and Muslims understood that the new president was attuned to their concerns, willing to listen to them and, above all, no longer overly concerned with maintaining a close relationship with Israel, the change in atmosphere would alter the equation that led to a stalemate on both the Israeli-Palestinian front as well as with Iran. Although differences existed between Bush and Israel, these disputes were usually discussed in private. But Obama and Secretary Clinton publicly stated that this closeness was actually harmful to the prospects for peace. Therefore, the Obama administration was resolved to undertake initiatives that would mark a clear change of course.

Settling on Settlements

One of the first foreign policy initiatives out of the gate was a public call for Israel to enact a total building freeze in Jewish communities in the West Bank and Jerusalem. While successive American presidential administrations desired a halt to Israel’s settlement activity as a matter of official U.S. policy, there was a clear difference in the Obama administration’s approach. He sought to make the issue of a settlement freeze a precondition for resuming negotiations – something the Palestinians had previously never demanded. These calls were reinforced by the administration’s new Middle East peace envoy, former senator George Mitchell, who behaved as if the settlement issue was the sole obstacle to his success. It fast became the keynote of U.S.-Israeli relations throughout 2009.

The Obama team made it clear that they regarded the understandings reached between Washington and Jerusalem during the Bush administration to be null and void. In a letter penned in 2004 during Bush’s tenure, the United States officially recognized that the borders agreed upon in any peace negotiation must reflect the fact that Israel would retain its major settlement blocs as well as Jerusalem. As part of this understanding, Israel withdrew from Gaza a year later. But to Israel’s chagrin, Obama reneged on this presidential commitment. Indeed, his representatives not only acted as if the agreement had never occurred but that the Israeli concessions made to obtain the Bush letter were inconsequential.

Seemingly without a full grasp of the nuances of the settlement issue, the administration made no distinction between the West Bank and greater Jerusalem when speaking about Jewish building. When he personally condemned building in Jewish neighborhoods in parts of the city that had been occupied by Jordan before June 1967, Israelis understood that the tenor of relations between the two countries had markedly changed. The fact that the apartments Obama was opposing were located in Gilo, a neighborhood within Jerusalem’s expanded borders that had been subjected to sniper fire from Palestinian villages during the height of the second intifada, served to intensify the dispute.

The Diplomatic Dance

Another factor that exacerbated the tension between Washington and Jerusalem was President Obama’s unhappiness with the composition of the new Israeli government elected a month after he took office. In that election, a center-right coalition led by the Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu swept into office leaving Israel’s left in disarray. Netanyahu’s victory was a function of the fact that most Israelis felt there was no hope at the present for peace with their Palestinian interlocutors. But Obama and his staff failed to grasp this key point. Instead, they believed Netanyahu’s coalition was too fragile to survive. Therefore, they set out to test the Israeli prime minister in the hope that his coalition might collapse and be replaced by a more amenable government.

This put the Israeli leader in a delicate position. Netanyahu understood that a cardinal principle of Israeli foreign policy was that Jerusalem’s positions should remain closely in tune with those held in Washington. But there were limits beyond which an Israeli prime minister could not traverse, even at the risk of a diplomatic crisis. One such limit was the status of the Israeli capital. Netanyahu understood that the Israeli public would resent Obama’s Jerusalem initiative and the fact that the new American president was putting the Bush letter on ice. Rather than being pushed from office under a crumbling coalition, Netanyahu publicly disagreed with Obama on settlements and Jerusalem and his popularity soared at home.

The Israeli prime minister was also keenly aware that even a diplomatic victory over an American president was dangerous so he publicly stated that he was ready to make peace and recognize a Palestinian state. Later in the year, after the confrontation over the settlement issue began to dissipate, Netanyahu agreed to a temporary building freeze outside of Jerusalem. This was a further attempt to placate the Obama administration. While it did not please Netanyahu’s right-wing coalition partners, they understood that this was a necessary concession in order to repair their relations with Washington.

While a diplomatic dance emerged between Washington and Jerusalem, there was a complete lack of interest on the part of the Palestinians to return to peace talks. The president hoped that his call for an Israeli settlement freeze and his Cairo speech in early June would go a long way toward repairing America’s image in the Arab and Islamic worlds. Specifically, Barack Obama hoped the Palestinians would come to see that his intentions were benign and that he could be trusted to be an honest and evenhanded peace broker. But the realities of Palestinian politics in 2009 were little different than they had been a year earlier when Netanyahu’s predecessor offered Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas a Palestinian state in virtually all of the West Bank and half of Jerusalem. And Abbas’s answer was no different than that of his predecessor, Yasir Arafat, in 2000 and 2001. The dynamics of Palestinian politics are such that none of the leaders – not the supposedly moderate Palestinian Authority nor the more extreme Hamas – are willing to recognize the legitimacy of the Jewish state or pledge to live in peace alongside it, regardless of where one draws the borders.

President Obama backed away from the peace process and the confrontation with Netanyahu by the end of his first year, revealing in a January 2010 interview with Time, “If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high.” While this admission represented progress from the initial stance adopted by the administration, the easing of tensions on the Palestinian-Israeli front did not replace Israel’s continued frustration over the issue of Iran.

Going Nowhere with Iran

When Barack Obama took office, he concentrated on enticing the Iranians into negotiations – as though diplomatic engagement had not been attempted and already shown to yield no fruit. Not surprisingly, these initiatives have so far failed. Indeed, after a year of engagement, the administration was forced to attempt to assemble an international coalition in favor of sanctions. This was somewhat reassuring to Israelis who watched the year of engagement pass by with dismay as Iran grew closer its nuclear goal. The fact that China and Russia are opposed to new and tougher sanctions does not bode well for progress on Iran’s nuclear issue. This leads Israel to ponder the kind of unilateral action that is fiercely opposed by Obama, just as it was by Bush.

Relations between Israel and the United States seem to be on a firmer footing today than at any time during the first twelve months of the Obama presidency. However, the failed American initiatives have taken their toll on the relationship. The tensions provoked by the settlement freeze imbroglio as well as by the obsession with engagement with Iran have undermined Israeli faith in the reliability of its American ally. This is reflected in polls that find approval for President Obama in Israel lower than any other president in recent memory. While support for Israel among Americans remains strong and bipartisan, the tensions that the Obama team sought to exploit encouraged the Arab and Islamic world to believe that the United States would “deliver” for it. When no progress was made because of Palestinian intransigence, America’s stock in the Arab world declined in turn.

Going forward, it will be important that President Obama and his advisors learn from their mistakes. If, despite everything that happened in 2009, they return to a policy of distancing themselves from Israel in the blind hope that the Palestinians will suddenly prove to be capable of making peace, trouble lies ahead. Similarly, as the clock winds down toward the day when Iran will have enough highly enriched uranium to produce a weapon, American foreign policy will need to take Israel’s red lines into account or there is sure to be an even thornier diplomatic crisis between Washington and Jerusalem. Experience is the best teacher. If the lack of progress on both the Palestinian and Iranian fronts have provided the Obama administration with a more realistic sense of what is possible to accomplish and the difficult decisions that lay ahead, it would be a good start.


Since this manuscript was completed in February, the first months of the second year of the Obama administration demonstrate that, contrary to my hopes, senior officials have learned little and understood less about the Middle East during their time in office.

The visit of Vice President Joseph Biden to Israel in the second week of March was expected to serve as an attempt by the administration to reassure Israel as to the strength of the alliance with the United States and Washington’s determination to achieve a diplomatic solution to the problem of the Iranian nuclear program. The announcement of a new Jewish housing project in East Jerusalem while Biden was in the country was a blunder for which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu quickly apologized. But rather than allowing this incident to pass, the Obama administration sought to portray it as a grave insult for which Israel should be punished. The fact that the new apartments were in an existing Jewish neighborhood in Jerusalem, an area that was specifically excluded from Netanyahu’s pledge of building freeze in the West Bank, did not deter the administration from treating it as a provocation that must be reversed. Subsequent vitriolic attacks on Israel’s government by Obama’s team made it clear that the incident was being used as an excuse to turn back the page to the previous spring and summer when Washington sought to destabilize Netanyahu’s coalition.

The resulting situation left the two countries farther apart than they had been in recent memory with Obama clearly determined to push Israel’s prime minister to either bend on Jerusalem or to see his government fall. However, as was the case in 2009, it is unlikely either event will come to pass as Netanyahu is on firm political footing and standing his ground on this issue. Moreover, the possibility that the administration will begin a push to reinvigorate the peace process or even propose their own plan sets up a situation where failure is ensured since the Palestinians (who offered Biden an insult of their own when they choose to honor a terrorist guilty of mass murder during the same week) are no more likely to sign on to any peace deal in 2010 than they have been in any previous year. As for Iran, the perceived slight to Biden seems to have largely diverted Obama from dealing with this threat. Indeed, the reaction to Israel’s actions on the part of the administration have been far more harsh than anything they have said about Tehran’s atrocities and diplomatic prevarications in the past year.

Thus, rather than merely failing to gain ground toward either peace between Israel and the Palestinians or on the Iranian nuclear problem, the first months of Obama’s second year have seen setbacks that may create even greater problems in the years to come. Having determined to distance America from the Jewish state, the administration has dangerously raised hopes among Arabs and Muslims that they will “deliver” Israel. The result is that rather than enhancing the chances for peace, Obama’s tactics have instead raised the possibility that 2010 may bring an increase in violence and further instability to the region.

Jonathan S. Tobin is executive editor of COMMENTARY magazine and a contributor to its blog Contentions at www.commentarymagazine.com.