Sunday 18 July 2010

Obama's Take Two - Again

US President Barack Obama recently found it necessary to issue a special invitation to Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu for him to return to the White House for a" charm offensive". This was required due to the persistent negative press about Obama's treatment of Netanyahu during his previous visit to Washington. This epitomises the treatment that Obama has dished out to Israel since becoming president nearly 18 months ago. His first attempts have been derogatory to say the least. He was then forced to make a second attempt to fix the damage done. This fact has not gone unnoticed by the Israeli public who interpret his first action as the one which comes most naturally. Somehow, the attempts to fix the problem feel more contrived and less heart-felt when they eventually come.

During his presidency to date, Obama has visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iraq in the Middle East. He made sure that his "keynote address" on Middle East policy was delivered in Cairo. Despite the fact that Israel remains the USA's most important ally in the Middle East, and the only democracy in the region, Obama has made an obvious point of not visiting Israel. What can be deduced from this behaviour? Even though he has spent some considerable time in dealing with Middle East issues, and the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians in particular, it sends a clear message to Israel when the US president does not find the time to pay Israel a personal visit. His predecessors made it their business to publicly be seen visiting Israel, so why is Obama so eager to avoid such a public display?

The truth is that the necessity to revisit his relationship with Netanyahu is only one example of Obama having to admit having done the wrong thing in relation to Israel at the first attempt. It was only a few months ago that Obama was forced to admit that his approach in dealing with the Middle East was mistaken, and that his administration was forced to change the way in which this was being handled. He admitted that he could not impose a settlement on Israel, that Israel is a sovereign nation and the notion that he could impose a settlement was simply wrong. What was he thinking when he considered the possibility of imposing a settlement on Israel? And why did he think that admitting such a ridiculous thought would be ok? The insult that he dished out to Israel in the process was only slighlty less than the damage done to his own standing by admitting that he had held this view. We have only seen the tip of the damage done, both to his Middle East policy and to his personal standing.

I cannot help but feel that this is not a series of innocent mistakes. It seems more like a natural instinct that he is finding hard to suppress when dealing with Israel. Having allowed his first reaction to come to the fore, he is forced to eat humble pie by admitting to his mistake, and trying to make good the damage caused. Unfortunately, his mistakes are too frequent and too consistent. When he should be affording Israel some respect, he is found to be critical and derogatory towards her. When he should be holding the feet of Israel's Arab enemies to the fire, he is found to be too cosy with them, and too accommodating of their behaviour.

The Israeli public seems to have been quick to pick up on this fact. In a poll published in the "Jerusalem Post" on Friday, it became all too apparent how optimistic Israelis were when he was first elected, and how this optimism has completed disappeared. At first, Israelis were caught up with the positive euphoria that swept the USA after the election of the first African American president. In a poll in May 2009, no fewer than 31% of Israelis felt that Obama was pro-Israel while 14% felt he was pro-Palestinian. By June 2009, the views of Israelis had changed dramatically to reflect only 6% believing that he was pro-Israel and 50% viewing him as pro-Palestinian. Now, after his charm offensive with Netanyahu and his first interview with an Israeli TV station since his arrival at the White House, the same poll shows 10% of Israelis seeing him as pr0-Israel and 46% as pro-Palestinian. This may "only" be a public opinion poll with no real effect on the political landscape, but these are the same people who will be voting in the next Israeli general election. A candidate who is seen to be too close with a US president viewed as anti-Israel is likely to suffer at the polls.

At best, Obama's mixed messages and amateurish behaviour with respect to the Middle East can be viewed as naive and poorly considered. For somebody, however, who is such an expert at ensuring that his messages have the correct spin for public consumption, his actions seem to be more than unintentional errors. While I have no evidence to support some of the conspiracy theories that circulate about Obama's Muslim ancestry and a hidden agenda on the part of the US president to promote Muslim interests in the Middle East (at the expense of the Jews), it is difficult to understand what Obama is trying to achieve in the region. I was recently reminded that Islam is handed down through the paternal line, and that Obama's father was a Muslim. Obama has, of course, made a point of reinforcing his Christian faith at every possible photo opportunity. From a Muslim perspective, however, this does not deny that he is a Muslim - it simply makes him a bad Muslim.

It is clear that Obama had a huge job on his hands to convert the euphoria and enormous hope that rested on his shoulders at the time of his election into actions that would satisfy his electorate and the world at large. It could be argued that the expectations were so high, that he had no chance of fulfilling them. When it comes to his Middle East policy, however, his efforts have been abysmal. The work done so far, and the damage with it, seems to be too large to overcome. It is my view that, irrespective of what he may achieve in the Middle East during the remainder of his time in the White House, nothing will be enough to recover from his poor start. I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

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