On visit, Obama must avoid Mideast mistakes
STEVE HUNTLEY firstname.lastname@example.org February 11, 2013 6:40PM
FILE - In this July 6, 2010 file photo, President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu as they walk to Netanyahu's car outside the Oval Office of the White House in Washington. After a long and chilly four years, Barack Obama hopes to reset his relationship with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu with his first trip to Israel as president this spring. And it could be a step toward reopening a pathway toward peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, although Obama is carrying no big new Mideast peace plan(AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
Updated: March 13, 2013 6:17AM
The announcement that President Barack Obama will visit Israel and the West Bank next month set off the to-be-expected speculation about what the trip portends for the moribund Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy and the dilemma posed by Iran’s dogged pursuit of nuclear weapons. Given his record in the Middle East, the best hope may be that Obama will follow the advice of the Hippocratic code: Do no harm.
Indeed, expectations are low. The White House says the visit is “not focused on specific Middle East peace process proposals.” One goal appears to be repairing the often contentious relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The Israeli leader is forming a coalition government after elections that focused on domestic issues. The strong showing of centrist parties, according to much commentary, will force him toward a resumption of talks with the Palestinians. The record shows he’s offered on more than one occasion to return to negotiations, only to be rebuffed by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. Obama also will meet with Abbas.
The visit comes with the region in turmoil from the Arab Spring uprisings that have been hijacked by radical Islamists. Most of that has erupted in ways beyond Obama’s influence, yet the forays into the tangled world of Mideast policy by an inexperienced president often made things worse.
Israeli-Palestinian talks have been dead in the water for four years precisely because Obama poisoned the well. As a precondition for resuming negotiations, Obama laid down a demand the Palestinians themselves had never made — that the Israelis cease all construction, even new homes for growing families, in the disputed territories. In a good will offering, Netanyahu froze such building for 10 months. The Palestinians waited nine months before returning to the bargaining table, then walked away when the freeze expired. Now, the settlement freeze precondition remains a roadblock to renewed talks even though Obama has abandoned it. There’s talk of pressure on Netanyahu for a new partial building freeze, but Palestinian officials already have rejected it.
Then came Obama’s 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world and his extended open hand to Iran. Both came across as outreach to dictators, an interpretation validated when Iranians took to the streets to protest a fraudulent election and were largely abandoned by Obama as they were crushed by Tehran.
Obama usually seemed behind the curve as the uprisings swept across the Arab world, first embracing dictators like Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, then abandoning them — flip-flopping that in the end angered both the Arab street and the remaining authoritarian regimes in the region.
Only last week, it was revealed that Obama had rejected the advice of virtually his entire national security team to supply arms to rebels in Syria. Granted, this is an issue fraught with peril, but arming moderate, pro-Western factions might have blunted the rise of extremists, including some from al-Qaida, to the forefront of the rebellion. The outlook for Syria seems to be either a victory by Islamist rebels unfriendly to America or years of chaos as the country fragments, a landscape ripe for terrorists.
Netanyahu says his talks with Obama will center on Iran, Syria and the Palestinians. Hopefully, Obama will approach these issues tempered by his experience and by the reality that the currents of history flowing in the region often are hostile not only to Israel, but also to America’s interests.