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Obama arrives in a Middle East upended since his 2009 visit

President Obama arrived in Israel today for a regional visit in which he will have to juggle three rapidly ticking time bombs: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Syria’s war, and Iran’s nuclear program.

President Obama landed today in Israel to great fanfare, emphasizing in a short speech the allies’ shared history ahead of a two-day tour that will pay respect not only to the modern nation but also the Jewish people’s historic presence here.

He did not mention the Palestinians.

The emphasis on US-Israel ties stands in stark contrast to Mr.  Obama’s historic 2009 Cairo speech to the Arab world, in which he sought to distance the US from Israel and thus improve its standing in the region after the Iraq war and the war on terror. But four years later, after a wave of uprisings have toppled four governments and left Syria engulfed in civil war, he faces a much more volatile Middle East.  

Many of the promises he made In Cairo have gone unfulfilled or been rendered irrelevant by the most profound transformation in the region since the end of World War I. America’s stability-over-democracy contract with authoritarian Arab leaders has been deeply undermined by uprisings across the region, with citizens demanding that their leaders focus on popular priorities, not those of the West.

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Generations of American presidents have invested their time and prestige in “fixing the Middle East” – and been largely disappointed. Few in the region are counting on Obama to bring about major breakthroughs, given that little was accomplished in his first term.

But his visit could lay the groundwork for progress on three strategic problems that are at tipping points – including a closing window for a two-state Israeli-Palestinian deal, a Syrian civil war with regional ramifications, and an Iranian nuclear program that is approaching a capacity to make a weapon.

Obama’s visit to Israel signals recognition that, rocky relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu aside, these issues are best tackled alongside America’s top regional ally. “I think [his visit] is clearly an attempt to reboot Israeli-American relations and the relationship between President Obama and Netanyahu,” says Efraim Inbar, director of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies at Bar- Ilan University. “Netanyahu will do his best to offer a warm welcome to Obama, while at the same time trying to insist on issues. We expect the Americans to be more substantive on Iran; the Americans are probably looking to restart negotiations [with the Palestinians]. I think it’s important also to compare notes on Syria and Egypt, which are more important than the Palestinians in the larger picture.”

In Israel, there is cautious optimism that Obama’s visit will nudge leaders back to the negotiating table. Many Palestinians are disillusioned by the lack of action after his Cairo speech, however, and recent unrest has sparked some speculation about a third intifada, or uprising.

Peace advocates on both sides say the window for a viable two-state solution is fast closing – at best, in two years – largely because of expanding Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

But Mr. Netanyahu is likely to try to persuade Obama that Iran is the top priority. Whether he will succeed is uncertain, particularly with the resumption of nuclear talks in February after an eight-month hiatus raised hopes again.

Syria is perhaps the most intractable issue. Obama and Netanyahu have similar concerns: that Syria’s stockpile of chemical weapons could get into the wrong hands, and who would succeed President Bashar al-Assad.

If Obama and Netanyahu discuss Syria, “it would probably be in the context of its regional implications, which cover the waterfront: Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Israel,” says Frederic Hof of the Atlantic Council’s Rafik Hariri Center for the Middle East, who last year served the US administration as special adviser for transition in Syria. “Both countries have a strong interest in seeing the regime replaced by rule of law and civil society governance as quickly as possible before a failed-state scenario takes hold for years or even decades.”

The West Bank window

After feeling snubbed by Obama – who was civil but clearly not enamored of the assertive Israeli prime minister and who did not follow up his Cairo speech with a visit to Jerusalem – Israelis seem grateful for the state visit, during which Obama will deliver a speech to the Israeli public.

Ron Pundak, an Israeli negotiator of the 1993 Oslo peace accords, says that kind of direct appeal may be key. There’s little point in Obama pushing for a deal between Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, since the gap between what they can each accept is too wide, he says.

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“I would rather choose a strategy … to invest a lot of time in talking to the Israeli public above the politicians … to actually convince the Israeli public that Barack Obama is very, very much concerned with the Israeli needs, interests, our security issues, understanding what I would call the Israeli paranoia … toward everything which smells of potential threat to our security.”

Obama could do that by offering “a few attractive tools” to help guarantee Israel’s security if it takes risks in negotiations, Mr. Pundak says.

Both Pundak and Gershon Baskin of the Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information say any real negotiations will happen in private, as Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas face stiff resistance from their publics. “Abbas has told it to me personally – a public channel can’t work because each side will only be negotiating with their own side,” says Mr. Baskin, a former adviser to two Israeli prime ministers on peace talks.

And on the Israeli side, one of Netanyahu’s coalition partners – Jewish Home’s Naftali Bennett – has said he will do “everything in my power to make sure they never get a state.” Netanyahu’s Likud party has also shifted right.

“Netanyahu has problems within his own party, [members who] oppose the two-state solution,” Baskin says. “And [Abbas] is going to have to basically give up the implementation of any real right of return [of refugees] and he could not sell that publicly – only as part of a full agreement.”

The five-year interim arrangement outlined by the Oslo Accords has stretched to 20 years. Since 1993, Israel has more than doubled the number of its citizens living over the 1967 border, encroaching on the territory where Palestinians envision their future state. The US got Israel to agree to a 10-month settlement freeze in 2010, but officials still approved building in East Jerusalem, including 1,600 new units announced as Vice President Joe Biden visited.

But despite Palestinian disenchantment with Obama, America is still seen as able to help broker a deal. “I definitely believe that Obama as the US president can play a very important, positive role in bringing both [Israelis and Palestinians] together and in trying to facilitate a peace agreement similar to that done by [President] Carter with [Israeli Prime Minister Menachem] Begin and [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat,” says Mohammed Dajani, an American studies professor at Al-Quds University in Jerusalem. “He’s saying, ‘I’m not a bystander; your problem is very hard, and you’re making it harder by extremism, but I am not giving up.’ “

The great reach of Syria’s war

The beginning of Obama’s term was marked by a thaw in the diplomatic freeze with Syria initiated by the George W. Bush administration. Ambassador Robert Ford was sent to Damascus, and he actively engaged with Syria’s opposition in the early months of protests. But as the situation got dicier, he was recalled to Washington in the fall of 2011 and has not returned.

Last year, Obama had to contend with securing a second term in office amid a sputtering economy and taking into account an American public that has tired of US military interventions in the Middle East. But with a second term secured, he still shows little interest in playing a lead role to end the Syrian conflict, to the anger and frustration of the Syrian opposition.

“While the objective of a negotiated, peaceful transition from family rule to modern, representative government remains in place, the question of how to get there is very much open,” says Mr. Hof of the Atlantic Council.

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Last month, Secretary of State John Kerry promised $60 million in aid for Syrian rebels in areas they control. The US has also pledged other nonlethal aid, such as food and medical supplies – but not the military aid rebels seek.

American reluctance to provide weapons and ammunition stems from a reluctance to get involved in yet another distant war, especially one in which the outcome and the motives of many of the fighters seem so uncertain.

“Obama’s policy is somehow to contain the crisis and deal with its symptoms instead of the disease itself,” says Andrew Tabler, a Syria expert at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy. “The problem is, with the rise in the use of Scuds and spillover into Lebanon and Turkey, as well as the refugees flooding neighboring states, this gets less and less realistic.”

There is great risk that the war will spill over, imperiling Syria’s neighbors, including Israel – which is already building a new sophisticated electronic fence along the length of the Golan Heights, a Syrian territory that Israel has occupied since 1967.

The US and Israel share more immediate concerns about the Assad regime’s chemical weapons arsenal. Syria may possess one of the world’s largest chemical weapons stockpiles, including sarin and possibly VX nerve agents. The US and Israel worry the weapons could either fall into the hands of militant Islamic groups linked to Al Qaeda or be transferred by the Assad regime to the Lebanese Shiite militant group Hezbollah.

“The Israelis are now taking notice that they will have a failed state on [their] borders with WMDs [weapons of mass destruction] possibly in the hands of extremists or transferred from the regime to Hezbollah. It’s a double nightmare,” Mr. Tabler says.

Israel may be looking to the US not so much to take action on Syria itself, but to give Israel the green light to act as it sees fit, says Professor Inbar of Bar-Ilan University. In January, Israel brazenly hit a target near Damascus said to be a convoy of arms, including SA-17 antiaircraft batteries, destined for Hezbollah. Israel has long warned that the provision of advanced antiaircraft systems to Hezbollah would cross a “red line.”

The Washington-Tehran trust deficit

Obama’s relationship with Iran has been controversial since his first campaign, when he said he was willing to sit down with Iranian leaders to ease a generation of mutual hostility.

Within months, Obama reached out, eliciting a promise from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, that sincerity would matter: “You change, and we will also change our behavior, too,” Mr. Khamenei said.

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Neither side has yet tested those stated intentions. For Iran, the bloody aftermath of its 2009 presidential election – and accusations that the US was involved in a secret “Velvet Revolution” to topple the regime – has changed the domestic political landscape, exposed deep internal divisions and regime weakness, and made conciliatory steps all the more difficult.

Meanwhile, the Obama administration has spearheaded a global sanctions juggernaut against Iran, blocking oil sales and throttling financial dealings, in hopes of pressuring Iran into limiting its nuclear program.

Khamenei has railed against those sanctions, as well as a covert war – waged, he says, by Israel and the US – that includes assassinations of nuclear scientists in Tehran and destructive computer “worms” that targeted Iran’s nuclear program. Together they prompted Khamenei to nix direct US-Iran talks for the moment.

“You [Americans] are pointing the gun at Iran and say either negotiate or we will shoot,” Khamenei said Feb. 7. “The Iranian nation will not be frightened by threats.”

Despite such rhetoric, diplomats on both sides reported progress at long-stalled nuclear negotiations in Almaty, Kazakhstan, in late February – the fourth round of talks between Iran and the P5+1 (the US, Russia, China, Britain, France, and Germany).

In its bid to persuade Iran to stop its most sensitive nuclear work, the P5+1 in Almaty for the first time offered some limited sanctions relief on gold transactions and petrochemicals. An earlier offer to Iran last spring required it to make a host of important concessions before any prospect of relief.

Iran’s top negotiator said the P5+1 change was a potential “turning point.” An Iranian diplomat told the Monitor that the P5+1 “was softer, more realistic, and smarter.”

“A lot of people here [in Washington] thought we weren’t offering enough,” says Kenneth Katzman, an analyst for the Congressional Research Service in Washington. The new offer “was clearly a reaction to a widespread view … that this is nowhere near enough for Khamenei,” he says.

The trick for Obama will be giving Iran enough incentive to continue engagement and curb its nuclear work, even as mounting calls from Congress for more sanctions might convince Iran there is no reason to talk.

Iran’s negotiating team “can’t go to [Khamenei] with anything less than the EU [European Union] oil embargo is going to be lifted; [or] the US pressure on Japan, Korea, Turkey, India, and China to stop buying Iranian oil is going to be ended,” Mr. Katzman says. Without some lifting of oil sanctions, he adds, “I don’t think [Khamenei’s] going to go for this.”