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Taking the Pulse of Obama's Mideast Policies

January 7, 2010 By:
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President Barack Obama discussed his Mideast policies at a meeting at the White House back in July with leaders of Jewish groups, including (from left) Debra DeLee, Ira Forman and Alan Solow. Courtesy of the White House

One year ago, soon after the war in Gaza had ended and Barack Obama prepared to take the oath of office, many openly wondered if the dismal state of the economy would prevent the new president from devoting more than cursory attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Iranian nuclear threat.

Now, a mere 12 months later, the president has made no shortage of news on the Mideast front -- from his much-debated address to the Muslim world in Cairo to a harsh rebuke of Israel's settlement policy to continued diplomatic overtures toward Iran that appeared to yield little.

But after vowing to make these issues a top priority, the big question remains: Have his actions translated into advancing Israeli-Palestinian peace talks or halting Tehran's ambitions?

A survey of local academics and activists found that across the political spectrum, there is agreement that Obama has fallen short of goals he set for himself in the region. Several sources also observed that the administration at times appeared surprised by the sheer difficulty of making headway.

On the whole, those on the left argued that Obama's approach to foreign policy -- with an emphasis on multilateralism and engagement -- is on target. Those on the right contend that he has put far more pressure on Israel than on the Palestinians, other Arab states or the Iranians.

"What we have seen this year with the Obama administration is something that we hadn't seen for all eight years of the Bush administration," said Steve Masters, a Philadelphia attorney who sits on the national board of JStreet, an organization Obama officials appear to embrace.

"The fact that he hasn't been overwhelmingly successful doesn't trouble me since he's got at least three more years, and maybe seven more years," said Masters, who until recently was the national president of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom, the Jewish Alliance for Justice and Peace. As of Jan. 1, his organization became part of JStreet.

But Obama's public calls on the Jewish state to halt all settlement building alarmed many in the pro-Israel establishment, including Morton Klein, president of the Zionist Organization of America.

"It has been deeply troubling that Obama has made strong demands that Israel make very serious concessions without the Arabs doing anything in return," said Klein.

When Obama first came into office, the state of Israeli politics was in flux, a short war had just concluded, and lame-duck Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was still in office. But after Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu was elected to the post in February, the Americans pressured Netanyahu to embrace the two-state solution, which he eventually did, though it drew sharp rebukes from other Likud Party members.

Months later, in May, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton explicitly rejected the idea that Israel continue the so-called natural growth of settlements. Some claimed that Israel had reached a tacit understanding with the Bush White House on natural growth, even though Obama officials denied such claims.

In any case, Netanyahu wound up imposing a 10-month cessation of building in most settlements. Whether one viewed the White House's public embrace of that position as a backing down under pressure or a realization that the emphasis on settlements had provided an out for Palestinian inaction depended on one's political perspective.

Barak Mendelsohn, a terrorism analyst who teaches international politics at Haverford College, said that Obama has harmed the U.S.-Israel relationship and meddled in Israeli domestic politics by speaking so publicly about settlements.

It might not have been such a bad idea to pressure Israel, said Mendelsohn, but in his view, it was handled badly.

If Netanyahu's settlement freeze expires and no visible progress has been made, it could spark a new round of violence, particularly among settlers, most of whom vehemently oppose the freeze. It could even correlate into threats on the prime minister's life, said Mendelsohn.

"It will be a good excuse for both sides to escalate," said the professor. "If you can't follow up the settlement freeze with any kind of progress, the outcome could be quite devastating."

For Ian Lustick, a political-science professor at the University of Pennsylvania and a harsh critic of Israeli policy, Obama's insistence on a settlement freeze was akin to intervention for a drug addict. But he suggested that the president had backed away because of pressure.

"If Obama meant to do this, he should have decided that it was going to require a political cost that he was willing to pay," said Lustick, who implied that the Jewish state was addicted to occupying Palestinian territory, during a debate about the Obama administration's policies last month at Gratz College. The program was sponsored by the Jewish Federation of Greater Philadelphia's Kehillah of Old York Road and the Foreign Policy Research Institute.

Alienating an Ally
Lustick's co-panelist, Edward A. Turzanski, a senior fellow at FPRI and a national-security analyst at La Salle University, charged that Obama had alienated its trusted ally Israel, while showing far too much latitude toward adversaries like Iran.

According to Turzanski, the administration had engaged in wishful thinking in attempting to strike a deal with Iran.

Tehran, which has been widely criticized for its response to an internal protest movement, ultimately rejected a deal that it had tentatively struck to export its uranium abroad for enrichment. Instead, it is reportedly offering some kind of counterproposal.

"What, pray tell, is it that we would offer -- that anyone would offer -- to the Iranians, that would make them give up a nuclear-weapons program on which they have spent tens of billions of dollars?" asked Turzanski.

ZOA's Klein argued that Obama has reneged on his oft-repeated campaign promise to do all in his power to stop Iran from gaining nuclear weapons.

"He's actually been an obstacle to sanctions," Klein said, referring to the administration's efforts to slow legislation in Congress in order to give diplomacy more time.

Masters disagreed, saying that the administration's diplomatic outreach had succeeded in building an international consensus against Iran -- and has even appeared to get countries such as Russia and China at least to open up to the idea of stricter sanctions.

But Mendelsohn said that the fallout from Iran's elections took America by surprise -- and quashed whatever chance there was for real diplomacy.

"Iran is no longer a theocracy," he said. "It is a military regime under the cover of a religious government." 

 

 

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