“You’re on your own.” Behind all his words of support and friendship, the message Barack Obama delivered in both Jerusalem and Ramallah this week was clear. “Pivot to Asia,” would likely have been its most appropriate title. If only the US President had been that specific.
Reading Obama’s Jerusalem speech, one sees the typical boilerplate material, packaged, most importantly, for the Israel Lobby. However, there was nothing new here. Obama failed to utter a word about anything the United States, or the fabled “international community” would do that it is not already doing.
There was certainly grist for the mill for the Peace Process Industry. Obama was not going to do anything that would mean he had to allocate more attention to the Israeli-Palestinian crisis than he absolutely has to. That meant he had to shore up the illusion of a peace process, according to the Oslo formulation, that could be revived and continued. So, in both Jerusalem and Ramallah, Obama urged renewed negotiations, made stern statements about the need to end the occupation, called for a Jewish state of Israel next to a sovereign Palestinian state and reinforced support for the Palestinian Authority of Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad and opposition to Hamas.
Yet even there, no mention was made of any US role in brokering negotiations, as stressed by Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. No special envoys like Dennis Ross (Clinton’s man,) Anthony Zinni (dispatched by Bush) or George Mitchell (Obama’s early guy) are coming to get the two sides back to the table. No mention even of the new Secretary of State, John Kerry’s well-publicized enthusiasm for taking on this issue.
The calculus is not hard to see. The Middle East, particularly the Arabian Peninsula, was once called the “greatest material prize in history,” by the US State Department because of its wealth of oil resources. It just isn’t as important anymore. The US and Europe both see themselves on the road to energy independence. This sounds a little more grandiose than it really is. Local oil resources, and increased reliance on alternative energy sources will significantly diminish the role of Middle Eastern oil both in terms of serving energy needs and in terms of its role in the global economy, but it won’t eliminate it. OPEC will still be a major force in determining the price and supply of oil, but it won’t have the near-monopoly it does today.
Add to that the increasing turmoil in the region. The so-called “Arab Spring” is not the replay of Eastern Europe circa 1989 that so many in the West fooled themselves into thinking it was, as they watched Arab dictators brought down by Egyptian-style pro-democracy movements. Consider the violence that has plagued Libya and Syria. Even in Tunisia and Egypt, the two countries that once inspired so much hope, the revolution has been subverted by reactionary forces, eager to promote Islam and the military.
What we see taking place in these countries is reminiscent of the post-colonial setbacks we’ve witnessed elsewhere in the region, such as what transpired in Algeria since independence, and, worryingly, in Iran. There’s not a lot of optimism to go around. No matter who ends up controlling the region’s oil resources, they will find they have less leverage over the West than their predecessors, and fewer markets for their oil. The era of Arab influence over Western politics is already fading. (Israel, which is on its way to being a natural gas exporter, would do well to take note.)
And there’s the situation on the ground. Israelis elected a new government in February, one which has no interest in peace with the Palestinians. Settlement expansion continues, while the Israeli bunker mentality is further fortified by an increasingly conservative political establishment. For their part, the Palestinians remain divided between a Palestinian Authority which has lost virtually all legitimacy in the eyes of its people, but is the only acceptable “partner” for the US and Israel; and a Hamas government that no one will talk to, except Qatar and Tehran. Both sides of that divide seem as uninterested in reunification as Bibi is in a viable Palestine.
But then there’s the big mitigating factor, the domestic US Israel Lobby. Obama has a lot of work to do in the next four years, and he needs Congress to do it. Much of that work focuses on domestic economic issues, but there are foreign policy questions as well. Under such circumstances, America’s President cannot afford to spend the political capital of his second term fighting with AIPAC all the time, especially considering Israel’s declining strategic significance. Nor do his colleagues in the Democratic Party wish to see him jeopardize their chances of making gains in the midterm elections by picking a fight with Israel, for similar reasons.
So, Obama goes to Israel and speaks to Israelis as if he was the president of AIPAC, rather than the United States. He speaks of the unshakeable bond between the US and Israel. He says it is based on common interests (though he doesn’t really get into much detail about what those might be) and shared values. He speaks of the need for peace and acquiesces to the terms that Israel must be a Jewish state without qualifying in the slightest that it should not continue to treat its non-Jewish citizens as unequal. He tries to restore the battered and broken framework of the Oslo Process. He lauds the Iron Dome system, whose effectiveness is increasingly being questioned, and he pledges more money for it, while sequestering US defense workers out of their jobs.
The President reaffirms US support for Israel, and does not qualify that, either. He ignores the existing and growing apartheid system, and refrains from reminding the ever-democratic Israeli people that they are holding millions of Arabs without basic human and civil rights. No matter what, the US will continue to support Israel, and he glides over the fact that this is not due to any great love for Israel, but because of the influence of the Israel Lobby.
In spite of such restraints, Obama spoke his mind, at several points, about the state of Israeli democracy, and the injustice of the settlements. But these words paled in comparison to Obama’s lack of resolve to do anything meaningful about them. He warned Israelis of their country’s growing international isolation, but offered no ideas as to what the US might do to help with that. He called for two states, but offered no path towards that goal. The implication is that America won’t do anything, anymore. Indeed, his decision to speak to Israeli students instead of the Knesset translates that message for us: I know your government is disinterested in peace, so until you, the people, divert it from that course, there’s nothing I can or will do for Israel.
Israel, Obama said, is “…the most powerful country in this region. Israel has the unshakeable support of the most powerful country in the world.” That is the other message that was imparted. It says that it is within Israel’s power to change the status quo. The US will continue to be Israel’s benefactor, and Israel will not be threatened with a serious offensive, as it was in 1973. But the US cannot and will not make peace for Israel. That was also a message to those in the peace community that naively argue that the US “can want peace more than the parties themselves.” It can and it does, but it is not going to sacrifice its own interests, both in terms of domestic and foreign politics, to get there. Israel will have to change its own course first.
The Israel Lobby will ensure that the US continues to fund Israel’s military and Washington’s’ own perceived interests will also ensure that the two countries will continue to cooperate on defense and intelligence. However, Obama has made it clear that the US will shift its focus away from this conflict and the pointless US expenditure of diplomatic energy on trying to either manage or resolve it. He is opening the door for Europe or other actors to bring more pressure to bear on Israel. Though it’s unlikely that Brussels will follow through with such pressures in the near term, this could, ideally, change the playing field in the long run. The President has also sent a clear message to the PA, and that is that despite the required US protests, they should continue and intensify their strategy to pursue their cause in the international arena.
Ultimately, Obama knows that the US has spent inordinate time and energy on the peace process. He knows as well that it is becoming less and less vital to US concerns as time goes on. Still, America’s President would like to see Israel make peace possible, but failing that, he’s sent it a message: We’ll help if you want, but until you show some interest in changing the status quo, we have bigger fish to fry. And those fish, the President might add, are growing in size, and significance, every year.