The Corner

What Obama’s Mideast Priorities Ought to Be

Pres. Barack Obama met Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Tuesday for the fifth time. After a prolonged period in which the relations between the two countries were strained, this meeting was portrayed by both Washington and Jerusalem as a way to make amends. The issue on which the leaders chose to demonstrate their renewed unity was Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, the two leaders agreeing to shift the talks from “proximity talks” to direct negotiations. However, at this point, the preconditions for such a move set by Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas have not yet been met.

Obama and Netanyahu both faced domestic pressures to end the rift between their nations, and they probably chose the issue of the direct talks because neither side views it as particularly controversial. As far as we know, the leaders avoided the more difficult issues, such as Israel’s freeze on the construction of new settlements, which will expire in September.

Obama’s administration, which was deeply committed to solving the Palestinian issue, should by now be learning the hard way that there are no easy solutions and that greater American pressure on Israel yields little in the way of results. Despite years of American diplomatic attention, the peace process has failed to prevent new conflicts from erupting in the region and yielded no positive results or stability — indeed, it has yielded the opposite — and it persists only as a monument to the policy inertia and hopeful thinking that pass for common wisdom in Washington.

The core problem is not the Palestinian issue. There are dangerous regional forces at work — even a massive strategic shift — that demand American leadership, and the focus on the Palestinian issue distracts from and distorts that necessity. A radical strategic alliance led by Iran and Syria — which again dominates Lebanon (Hizballah) and now Gaza (Hamas) — is now cheered on by such nations as Brazil, Venezuela, and Turkey; has intensified the region’s anti-Israel and anti-Western drift; escalates its support for terror; and gallops towards a nuclear capability.

Moderate Arab regimes allied with the United States, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia, find America too busy trying to make an elusive peace to challenge this new threat. The absence of American leadership carries grave consequences: The failure to confront Iran has allowed it to further expand its realm of influence. Turkey’s strategic shift and its alliance with Iran’s radical axis is one of the most dangerous and important developments the region has seen in decades, perhaps in almost a century. Turkey — which had been focused on being part of the European state system for centuries, on becoming an integral part of the West since the 1920s, and on becoming a member of NATO since 1952 — is now again a Middle Eastern state. It is drifting toward reestablished Islamic rule. This internal process, which expresses itself through its foreign-policy shift, promises only to intensify in the near future.

But the United States, rather than take leadership, continues to spend time, effort, and political capital on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is not the root cause of the radicalization of the region. The peace process remains an Arab issue; it is non-Arabs (Iranians and Turks) who now shape the region’s new radical coalition. Both moderates and radicals are readjusting to this age of American absence — to our detriment.

Israel remains one of the most visible symbols of the West in the region, as well as the West’s strongest ally there, so it bears the brunt of the consequences of American abdication of its regional leadership. Israel faces the uneasy position of having to confront a broad and powerful radical coalition without or, at best, with limited American backing. The public rift between the United States and Israel on the Palestinian issue created public spats and tension between the nations and sent a signal to the radicals that Israel stands alone.

Moreover, this shift in U.S. policy is seen as part of a deeper realignment away from friendship with Israel and toward greater engagement of the Muslim world. The Obama administration has fueled that perception through various actions, foremost among them the Cairo speech last June, which ignored the foundations for Israel’s legitimacy by reducing it to a reaction to the Holocaust. The administration has done nothing of substance to correct that impression — only occasional atmospherics that are dismissed within the region as designed for internal U.S. political consumption.

All this has left Israel exposed to a region that now views the country as having been abandoned by its protector — which, in Islamic tradition, is tantamount to being condemned. As a result, regional players neither fear nor expect a U.S. reaction to an attack on Israel. This could lay the foundation for a war, the price for which Israel will pay.

If this summit in Washington could accomplish anything, it would be to reexamine the prioritization of the peace process over the region’s other genuine strategic concerns. The two leaders would focus on restoring the foundations of the common strategic interests between the two countries, charting a course on confronting Iran, bringing Turkey back into the fold, and scattering the non-aligned coalition emerging around Iran. Short of that, this summit may be good in politics for both leaders, but empty in policy.

Meyrav Wurmser is director of the Hudson Institute’s Center for Middle East Policy.


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