Even as government officials in Washington work to walk back from the brink of the “fiscal cliff,” another cliff is looming in the Middle East that Washington cannot afford to ignore.
The Iranian nuclear threat, the cross-border expansion of Syria’s civil war, the renewed barrage of Gaza rockets into Israel and the Palestinian plan to once again seek unilateral recognition from the United Nations all pose serious challenges to both the United States and Israel.
While his intentions might have been valiant, President Barack Obama made several serious missteps on the Middle East in the early months of his first term. With experience, he now should understand better the players, the pitfalls and the stakes. He must build on his successes — like enhancing the security cooperation with Israel and building an international coalition to impose sanctions on Iran. And where he failed, such as pushing Israel on the settlements rather than the Palestinians to the negotiating table — he must find a new strategy.
The president should make a visit to Israel a top priority in the early months of his second term. He needs to prove to his detractors and his supporters alike that his campaign rhetoric matches his action, that without the worry about Jewish voters or donors, he does indeed have Israel’s back. Obama garnered an overwhelming majority of the Jewish vote, even though the numbers were down slightly from 2008. But it was also clear that domestic issues trumped Israel in terms of voting priorities.
Although Obama may be understandably miffed at Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s attempt to inject himself into the presidential race — on behalf of Gov. Mitt Romney — both leaders must recognize how critical it is for their relationship to be rock solid, given the Iranian nuclear clock ticking on, and both the Gaza and Syrian borders heating up.
He needs to continue to make clear to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as he did over the weekend, that another effort to attain U.N. recognition, even as an observer nation, will not be tolerated.
The good news is that unlike tax-and-spending issues, Israel continues to garner bipartisan support. The adminstration and Congress need to continue to work together to intensify already biting sanctions on Iran and to make clear to the Palestinians that their renewed folly at the United Nations would be counterproductive and could jeopardize hundreds of millions of dollars in financial assistance.
Obama and his administration cannot walk away from the chaotic Mideast. They need to sensibly confront these challenges before we find ourselves about to fall off yet another cliff.