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All Obama has left on the Middle East is rhetoric

2013 March 25
by Paul Vallely

Barack Obama was clearly determined he was not going to make the same mistake as last time. One of the first things he did when he was elected to the White House in 2009 was travel to Cairo to make a keynote speech designed to build bridges between the Muslim world and a United States now led by a man whose middle name, he ostentatiously pointed out, was Hussein.

To underscore the point he studiously avoided going to Israel. But that proved a tactical error when it came to the Middle East peace process. For it convinced many Israelis that the new President, despite the longstanding US commitment to give unwavering support to the state of Israel, was no friend to its people – and that has cut the ground from all his attempts to broker peace between them and the Palestinians.

So the very first foreign trip of his second term as US president has been to Israel. He arrived there last week intent on weaving the rhetorical magic which is his greatest political asset in a speech variously described by Israeli commentators as seminal and historic. Barack Obama is good at speeches. The question is: is he much good at anything else?

There can be no doubt about Obama’s masterly touch with sound and symbol. On landing at Ben Gurion airport he removed his jacket and walked to view an Iron Dome anti-rocket battery, built in Israel with American funding, to intercept the Palestinian rockets which rain down from Gaza upon Israeli civilians. Then he laid wreaths at the graves of Theodor Herzl, the father of Zionism, and the assassinated prime minister Yitzhak Rabin.

At the memorial site of Yad Vashem he took care to counter what he had said in Cairo about the Jewish state being born out of the ashes of the Holocaust, without making any reference to the Bible or the Jews’ historic ties to the region. “Here on your ancient land,” Obama began a highly charged speech in which he confessed: “Nothing equals the wrenching power of this sacred place… We could come here a thousand times, and each time our hearts would break”.

But his pièce de résistance came on the second afternoon when, rejecting an invitation to address the Knesset, he spoke over the heads of the political class to an audience of young Israelis. It was classic Obama. He wove a shimmering fabric from the broad threads of history, morality, human empathy and high praise for Israel’s achievements. Deftly and subtly he painted a picture of what David Horovitz in the  Times of Israel called the glorious future of “an Israel at peace, in a region at peace, thriving financially, admired morally, no longer at physical risk”.

The young audience applauded loudly, even when he asked them to look at their world through the eyes of a Palestinian child, growing up without a state, living in the presence of a foreign army controlling the movements of her parents. That was not fair, he said. And still his audience clapped. According to the polls, Israelis don’t think peace is politically possible. Obama made them believe, for a few moments, that it was.

“You must create the change that you want to see,” he told his young cheering audience. Borrowing a touch of Mandela he added: “You can be the generation that permanently secures the Zionist dream” But the only way “for Israel to endure and thrive as a Jewish and democratic state is through the realisation of an independent and viable Palestine”.

But the reality is that this two-state solution – beloved of the United Nations, the Arab League, the European Union, Russia and the United States alike – is steadily losing support on the ground. The Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu pays lip service to it but his new cabinet is full of hardliners who want more Israeli settlements on Palestinian land. He has appointed a leading settler as housing minister.

Netanyahu, the historian Avi Shlaim  has noted “is like a man who, while negotiating the division of a pizza, continues to eat it”. There are growing numbers on the Palestinian side who believe the two-state option should be reconsidered; some have long talked of driving the Jews into the sea but others now speak of a single-state in which Jewish apartheid-like dominance is ended. All of this probably makes peace further off not nearer.

Perhaps Barack Obama knows this and suspects that rhetoric is the only fig-leaf he has to cover his impotence.  That appears to be the case in the other great intractable morass in the region. Obama left Israel for talks on the crisis in Syria with King Abdullah in Jordan which is now sheltering almost half a million refugees from the increasingly sectarian fighting between rebels and the forces of Bashar al-Assad. Though France and Britain are increasingly talking of arming the rebels Obama is steadfastly refusing to stoke the conflict, fearful of who will end up with the weapons if Assad falls.

Here Obama’s reticence is more understandable. A vast Sunni/Shia war is now consolidating across the Middle East. The traditional US stance of endorsing democracy is producing uncomfortable short-term results and Obama knows that the kaleidoscope has not settled across the Arab world from Egypt to Saudi to Syria. With salafi jihadists increasing calling the shots in Syria some in Washington adjudge that the awful Assad is not necessarily the worst of all options, though the spectre of chemical weapons adds a further complication – for the Israelis and Americans fear them just as they fear Iran’s nuclear potential.

Behind the fine words is Barack Obama offering anything in Israel beyond hand-wringing and exhortation? His speech was accorded a success all round: the left heard what they wanted to hear on peace while the right noted his reluctance to actually call for settlements to stop. “Obama is no longer a hater of Israel”, another commentator, Nahum Barnea, proclaimed, “he is now a friend, albeit a naive one… His praises were those of a lover, the wounds were the wounds of a lover”.  It will certainly all play well for Obama back in the United States.  Whether it will make any real difference in the Middle East is a different matter. And probably he knows that.

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