Sabria S. Jawhar
Published — Thursday 22 November 2012
Last update 22 November 2012 12:44 pm
BACK in the early days of the Obama administration, when the world was bright and shiny and anything was possible, the new president broke ranks with his predecessors and embarked on a tough love campaign with Israel.
Knowing that the United States and Israel shared a special relationship that neither nation sought to jeopardize, Obama rightly felt that he had some political capital in which he wanted more, and indeed, expected more from Israel to negotiate peace with the Palestinians.
That didn’t work out so well. Benjamin Netanyahu got all huffy, words were said, and the Jewish settlements in the West Bank continued. That special relationship cooled like a young married couple arguing over whose mom gave better Eid parties: stony silence and separate bedrooms.
Then Netanyahu got a little full of himself and all but endorsed Mitt Romney for president. He received a standing ovation on Capitol Hill from Republicans great and small and pretty much snubbed Obama on his trip to Washington. Then the unthinkable happened. Obama won the presidential election and the Israeli public is a little peeved that the special relationship is frayed at the seams. There is nothing worse in Israel than having your special friend — with all that money and military might — say he has your back, but mumbles it.
It’s not unexpected that Obama would say that Israel has a right to defend itself from missile attacks. But on this occasion he didn’t even bother, with his renewed political capital, to remind Israel to keep its bombings proportionate to Hamas’ attacks and not the “for every dead Israeli, we will kill 20 Palestinian children” route.
The Middle East political landscape is vastly different than it was in 2009 and the grasp the United States holds on its role as mediator is quickly slipping away. Hamas has growing support of its people as the Palestinian Authority’s power wanes. Syria is falling ever deeper in a potential decade-long civil war. Turkey has lost its edge as a Middle East powerbroker. And the Muslim Brotherhood, with its victory in Egypt, is carrying the new big stick in the region.
In all of these new developments, the United States has been sidelined as a spectator. Misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, and drone attacks in Pakistan will do that to a powerful nation. Add to that the perception in the Muslim world that Obama is a weak sister, the US might as well take its good intentions and go home to quibble about important things like the definition of rape and whether women are qualified to hold leadership positions.
Sure, there is a lot of antagonism among Muslims toward the United States, but for some reason we can’t quit them.
But I wonder whether the US has quit us. This week, Obama took his three-country tour of Asia, with a stop in Myanmar and meeting with Aung San Suu Kyi, the former opposition leader. In Yangon, there was no discussion reported about the plight of persecuted Muslims in the western part of the country.
Obama’s visit to Asia at the expense of the Middle East was not without some thought. He is thinking long-term and building a relationship with Asian countries to buttress the influence of China that will help protect the financial interests of the US.
But belatedly sending Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Jerusalem to speak to Netanyahu smacks of an afterthought. Israel has ruled the West Bank and Gaza as it pleases without interruption for the past 20 years and it hasn’t made the effort to shift its policy toward its neighbors despite the Arab Spring and its impact on the region.
Instead, Israel has buckled down and employed the same heavy-handed military tactics at a time that delicacy and nuance are needed most. With the exchange of gunfire between Syria and Israel in the Golan Heights and the instability in Lebanon, Israel needs to reconsider its options that don’t necessarily include military incursions.
At the same time, the US needs to use neutral language that will inflame neither side. When Clinton arrived in Israel, she told reporters, “It is essential to de-escalate the situation in Gaza. The rocket attacks from terrorist organizations inside Gaza on Israeli cities and towns must end and a broader calm restored.”
The onus should not be placed entirely on Hamas, although I often think nitwits run this group. To label Hamas, a democratically elected group supported by the Palestinian population, as a “terrorist organization” is disingenuous. It makes the US less a mediator and more of an advocate for Israel.
Obama and Clinton need to return to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict with some of that tough love that Obama embraced at the beginning of his first term. They need to convince the now chastened Netanyahu to take the bold step to back down and reach across the table to the Palestinians. Hamas needs to agree to a cease-fire and allow Obama, Clinton and Muhammad Mursi to speak for them.
Obama may be in a better position with Israel than he was in 2009 to exert some pressure to put an end to Israel’s military aggression in Gaza.
The US has Netanyahu where they want him. The Israeli public wants the prime minister to behave and keep Israel’s special relationship intact. If Obama can exploit that, it will go a long way to repairing the relations with the Muslim world.