March 24, 2013

Obama’s Trip To The Middle East: Impressive, Constructive and Promising

by Hal Gershowitz

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Largely billed as a well-managed media event to make nice with Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and reassure Americans who overwhelmingly support Israel that the alliance is still intact, President Obama accomplished more than that – much more.

This was not the softball, photo-op excursion that we had largely written it off to be. Obama, somewhat to our surprise, went to the Middle East to accomplish something and, in our judgment, he did just that.  No, we don’t think there is now going to be a rush to peace in that tortured part of the world, but we do think the calculus of the rejectionists is being seriously recalibrated.

The sudden and rather impressive rapprochement with Turkey’s Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan, which was brokered by President Obama during his visit, is no small matter.  Erdogan and Netanyahu are probably prime examples of the old political adage, “there are no permanent friends and no permanent enemies in politics, only permanent interests.  And while no one expects Erdogan and Netanyahu to join hands in a festive Hora anytime soon, the two leaders do share pretty permanent interests, which were torn asunder as a result of the Gaza-flotilla incident three years ago.  Turkey had little choice but to cut off ties after nine Turkish citizens were killed in the ill-fated, ill-advised and highly provocative attempt to run the Israeli blockade of Gaza.  A UN investigation, which no one expected to be impartial, surprisingly, essentially exonerated Israel of criminality in enforcing its legal blockade of illegal arms shipments to Gaza.

“We are entering a new period in both Turkey and the region,” said Erdogan. “We are at the beginning of a process of elevating Turkey to a position so that it will again have a say, initiative and power, as it did in the past.”  Turkey’s power in the region was greatly enhanced by its previous close strategic, political and military relationship with Israel, which we assume will now be rapidly restored.  It is, after all, Turkey that holds the ultimate trump cards over Syria, especially in alliance with Israel.  Erdogan announced, on behalf of the Turkish People that the conditions for normalization have now been met. These included an apology, compensation to the victims’ families and a relaxation of the blockade against Gaza (Israel has long allowed consumer goods to reach Gaza).  These are rather inconsequential concessions for Israel to make, and, but for some of the weird players who comprised Israel’s prior coalition government, concessions that would have been made long ago.  Turkey has agreed to drop the criminal legal case against the Israeli Defense Forces officers it holds responsible for the raid, although that will take some time and adept maneuvering by Erdogan.

There were other very significant steps taken during the Obama visit that deserve commendation.  He recalibrated the dynamic that he had set in motion by his lofty, eloquent but terribly amateurish foray into geopolitical gamesmanship with his Cairo speech of 2009 and his ill-advised State Department speech on May 19, 2011. The President took pains during last week’s trip to the region to reshuffle the deck with which he had been playing high-stakes foreign-relations poker.

As we wrote at the time, when the President, in effect, made a settlement-freeze a precondition of restarting peace talks, and embraced borders that essentially made the ‘67 truce lines the new borders of a future two-state solution, he crippled the very process he was trying to restart.  Palestinian President Abbas simply “pocketed” those gems, leaving Israel nothing to negotiate.  It was widely recognized as a blunder by those schooled in Middle East diplomacy and history.

Last week, however, while visiting the West Bank, President Obama urged the Palestinians to return to the bargaining table even if Israel did not meet their condition of halting construction of Jewish settlements.  In the murky world of foreign diplomacy, Obama’s recalibration seemed to be bearing fruit.  The New York Times surfaced a draft of Abbas’s talking points for his session with President Obama that suggested that the Palestinians were prepared to soften their demand that Mr. Netanyahu publicly halt all building of settlements. Private assurances from Prime Minister Netanyahu would be acceptable.

Then there was the President’s bold and unequivocal statement designed to throw cold water on those who preach that Israel will fade into oblivion as time marches on.  “Those who adhere to the ideology of rejecting Israel’s right to exist might as well reject the earth beneath them and the sky above, because Israel is not going anywhere.”

Words count, especially in the Middle East, and while we have no way of knowing what has been said behind closed doors, Netanyahu, perhaps, gave us a hint of the American commitment to its long-time ally. “I am absolutely convinced that the president is determined to prevent Iran from getting nuclear weapons,” Netanyahu said. “I appreciate the fact that the president has reaffirmed, more than any other president, (emphasis added) Israel’s right and duty to defend itself by itself against any threat.”

And to punctuate the point, President Obama announced that the US was opening talks to extend military aid to Israel for another ten years beyond the 2017 expiration of the current military pact.

Obama was unambiguous in his remarks with Israeli President Shimon Peres at his side, delivering a blunt warning to the country’s foes, saying that the United States has the Jewish state’s back.  Obama told the entire nation, and at the same time, the Palestinians, the greater Arab world and America’s European allies that “peace must come to the Holy Land and that goal would not be achieved at Israel’s expense”.

President Obama also took steps to bolster the government of King Abdullah of Jordon, our only reliable ally in the Arab world.

No, we don’t expect peace to break out over the Obama visit.  No one does.  Sadly, we rather agree with Henry Kissinger’s recent pessimistic view of the Middle East conundrum. With the rise to power of the Moslem Brotherhood in Egypt and the arrival on the scene of an assortment of other hard-line Islamic factions few people in the Western world had even heard of only a short time ago, the facts on the ground don’t seem very conducive to stability or a movement toward tranquility.

But let’s give credit where credit is due.  President Obama turned what was presumed to be a perfunctory goodwill media tour into a reaffirmation of strong and unequivocal American support for its beleaguered Middle East ally, recalibrated his formula for eventually restarting peace talks, and pulled off a mini-coup with the Israel-Turkey rapprochement in the process. Not bad for three days work.

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3 responses to “Obama’s Trip To The Middle East: Impressive, Constructive and Promising”

  1. irwin yablans says:

    Great statesmanship from a cool thinker…
    A welcome change from the bellicosity of the recent past.

  2. Helen Stern says:

    This article was so uplifting, hopeful, and encouraging. Maybe we aren’t so mad at Obama anymore.

  3. Mark J Levick says:

    If the President has come to believe that the key to handling the problems posed by Syria and Egypt embracing militant Islam is a counter force of allied Israel and Turkey and a pro West Jordan we are more secure now than we were before his trip. If not, Obama is still one helluva spinmeister. Time will tell whether he’s walking the walk. Lets hope so as the alternative is chaos.

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