Sunday 22 May 2011

What Game is Obama is Playing?

US President Barack Obama chose to use the day before the visit to Washington by Prime Minister Netanyahu to make his long-awaited Middle East policy speech. The speech, delivered at the State Department on Thursday, has proved to be huge disappointment to all those involved in the ongoing conflicts and challenges in the region. The speech has left me quite confused about what this president is really trying to achieve in the Middle East. Judging by the reporting of his address in the press, I am not the only one who has been confused by the latest policy statements, or lack of them.

My assumption prior to the president's address was that one of Obama's main objectives in the Middle East is to prevent a vote on Palestinian statehood coming to the UN General Assembly in September, as is currently the plan. It is my expectation that such a vote, if held, would find a majority of countries supporting the declaration of unilateral statehood by the Palestinians. The Arab block would automatically support this vote, no matter what the consequences. In addition, there are many rogue states such as Venezuela and Iran which would not require much convincing to vote in favour of such a resultion. Perhaps more importantly, there are many reasonable countries around the world (including some in Europe) that have become tired of this issue on the agenda for so long. They feel that such a step would at least change the current situation which has prevailed for so long without significant progress. Many are even prepared to risk things turning worse, in the possibility that they may also improve. This is risk is preferable, in the eyes of some, rather than continue the current status quo, which has not produced anything positive until now. Ultimately, I believe that there is little prospect of a UN vote being rejected by a majority of those voting, in spite of the fact that the Palestinians are known not to support Israel's right to exist and are involved in acts of terror. The only way, therefore, to prevent a resolution from passing the vote is to prevent the vote from taking place at all. I believe that Obama is fully aware of this.

His speech at the State Department on Thursday, however, did not reveal anything which supports the idea of working to prevent a vote at the UN. The only way to achieve this is to get the peace talks back on the road, such that the Palestinians feel that they will have more to gain by reopening the peace talks than they would by unilaterally declaring statehood. In order to reopen the peace talks, the Israeli team also needs to be convinced of the vision behind the peace talks, and the fact that Israel's most pressing concerns will be taken care of under the negotitated settlement. In the event, the speech seems to have convinced neither the Palestinians nor the Israelis of the value in renewing the talks. It seems to me that there was no real attempt to try to convince either party by the statements that Obama made. Along with many others, I am searching for Obama's intentions and policy direction in his speech.

I am most amazed by Obama's reference to the 1967 borders (with mutually agreed swaps) as the basis for the Palestinian state. Not only does this contradict a letter written to Israeli Prime Minister Sharon made by Obama's predecessor George W. Bush that referred to the 1949 borders, it has also been made clear by successive Israeli prime ministers that the 1967 borders are indefensible. To expect Israel to agree to having the borders of a Palestinian state run a mere 18kms from Israel's most populous area, Tel Aviv, and to have the distance between the Palestinian state and the Mediterranean Sea being less than 10kms at its narrowest point is foolhardy. The lesson that we have learned from Gaza is that withdrawal from territory simply allows the rocket launchers to be located closer to the heart of the country. It should also be considered that substantial numbers of Israeli citizens will find themselves housed in the Palestinian state under these proposals, something that no Israeli government will agree to.

If Obama intended to make a speech about Middle East policy that was designed not to have any impact on the region at all, he has done a good job. It is not inconceivable that the president resigned himself to making a keynote speech to try to silence those who have criticised his lack of attention to this important issue, while realising that he can do little or nothing to change the current impasse. The fact that he has yet to make a visit to Israel or the Palestinian Authority area almost three years into his presidency, is a clear indication of where this matter falls on his list of priorities.

If, however, Obama does genuinely intend to bring American policy and power to stop the UN vote in September and force the parties to a negotiated agreement, he will have to do a great deal better than this. For starters, he will need to show a much greater grasp and sensitivity to the main issues and red lines held by each party. The fact that special Middle East envoy George Mitchell has quietly resigned and slipped away without a successor, will also need to be fixed quickly.

Against this backdrop, it will be interesting to observe Prime Minister Netanyahu's address to both houses of congress on Tuesday in Washington. Netanyahu has come out fighting vigorously against Obama's 1967 borders, much to the joy of most Israelis across the political spectrum. He has also tried to maintain some semblance of professionalism with Obama in order not to alienate him to completely. This balance will be difficult to continue to achieve in the future.

If Netanyahu came to Washington expecting to get help from Obama to prevent the UN vote, he will feel sorely let down. It is clear that, short of supportive statements, the Americans are either unwilling or unable to bring their influence to bear on Middle Eastern politics at the current time. This is a real shame because the parties have really been looking to the US to engineer the breakthrough that could bring peace to the region. Unfortunately, with the current policy and level of involvement of the USA government in Middle Eastern issues, a vote at the UN in September looks unavoidable.

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