Is Obama backing way from his Middle Eastern initiative?

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By Ira Sharkansky

Ira Sharkansky

JERUSALEM–He ain’t stupid. Stubborn is not all that bad. Neither is pressure.

The subject is Barack Obama. Signs are that he is backing off from saying that he expects early compliance with his demands on Israel and Palestine.

“. . . even if we apply all our political capital to that issue, the Israeli people through their government and the Palestinian people through the Palestinian Authority as well as other Arab states may say to themselves, we are not prepared to resolve these issues no matter how much pressure the United States brings to bear. . . We can’t want it more than they do.”

This came as the summit on nuclear weapons was ending. The President responded to a question asking if he was hypocritical for not demanding of  Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty, insofar as there is a widespread belief that it has an undeclared nuclear arsenal. 

No Zionist should protest his response.

“ . . . as far as Israel goes, I’m not going to comment on their program, but what I’m going to point to is the fact that consistently we have urged all countries to become members of the NPT.”

What explains this turnaround? 

No one outside the President’s mind can be sure. Among the options, however, is the man’s intelligence. He proposed and pushed, but recognized that he came up against firm opposition from the targets of his pressure. Israel, Palestinians, and other Arabs cited strong domestic opposition to the details of American proposals, and could not move without someone else moving first. 

The President says that he intends to continue with his mission, but that may be no more than standard political rhetoric. 

Whose fault?

There is room for endless accusation. The Palestinians have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Israel is ensnared in the grip of religious and nationalist extremists, certain that they have God’s endorsement for controlling what they view as the Land of Israel. Arab governments are always on the verge of violent upheaval, and cannot challenge what they have created by 60 years incitement against the Jews. Obama went too far. He challenged Arab pride by calling publicly for concessions, and made an insulting demand of Israel to prevent Jews from living where they would in Jerusalem.  

The President is good intentioned and smart. The proposals he made to Israel, Palestinians, and Arab governments would have gotten an A in any course on policy innovation. It offered something to everyone, as well as demanding concessions from everyone.  However, he is no magician. He pushed too many hot buttons. 

Was he naive? Of course, but no less than advisors and analysts in government offices, think tanks and elsewhere who claim expertise,  contributed details, and joined his chorus. 

Outsiders have a great deal of trouble manipulating someone else’s politics. It has long been a curse of those who would manage empires, even if –like Americans–they shun the label of imperialist. 

The urge to rule, or to shape, that comes out of the American capital has done more harm in Iraq and Afghanistan than in Israel or Palestine. It is easiest to call the 2003 invasion of Iraq an American folly, insofar as there is little indication that the Iraqi regime was a threat against the United States.  Afghans were neck deep in 9-11, but that does not explain Washington’s persistence beyond its first wave of destruction. The continued occupation of two Islamic countries appears to have made things worse, by spreading religious extremism beyond where it already thrived. 

Iran is the blackest mark on the President’s overseas aspirations. It is here where criticism, and even ridicule of his rhetoric appears to be most appropriate. Stopping Iran may always have been beyond the capacity of the United States. Could it have begun another war, when military and financial resources were already strained to the breaking point by previous commitments? The lack of international support for serious sanctions has long been apparent. 

We should not expect quiet from the White House, and certainly not from the ranks of others who have been pressing one gimmick or another as the key to reforming the Middle East. Muslims of the region seem destined for more years of religious and political incitement, shabby education and other social services, as well as repressive rulers. The Jews of Israel will continue coping with restive neighbors and those of their own who aspire to moral perfection. 

President Obama has done well in his aspirations for health reform in his own country, and may still be able to tinker with some of the patchwork to bring it closer to what Europeans and Israelis enjoy. 

The world is even more complex than the United States Congress. 

It is tempting to paraphrase a line from Fiddler on the Roof.  May God bless and keep the President… far away from us. 

No doubt the American White House has been better for the Jews that Tevye’s Tsar. Yet some of its good intentions have been too much. 

No one should not expect an uptick in the modesty prevailing in the White House and elsewhere in the United States, but a resident of Jerusalem should never discount the possibility of miracles. 

 *
Sharkansky is professor emeritus of political science at Hebrew University.

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