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Δευτέρα, 14 Απριλίου 2014 03:00

Obama’s “Audacity of Hope” for Middle East Peace

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For the past five years, US President Barack Obama has appeared committed to putting an end to decades of conflict in the Middle East, and to striking a deal between Israelis and Palestinians that can bring about a two-state solution. Obama’s decision to make Middle East peace a centerpiece of US foreign policy has been an audacious political gamble. This article seeks to explore why finding a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been so close to Obama’s heart, and assesses the chances of the success of yet another attempt to resolve the Middle East impasse. 

There is currently a strong sense of urgency in the Middle East, with top-level meetings, looming deadlines, and statements of determination. Yet, there is also a strong sense of déjà vu. As New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman so aptly described it, the Israeli-Palestinian peace talks are like a bad play, with all parties acting out the same old scenes, using the same old tired clichés, and “the only thing driving the peace process today usa obama abbas netanyahuis inertia and diplomatic habit...something diplomats do to stay in shape”.[1] With turmoil in Crimea and the reemergence of a Cold-War like atmosphere, with the whole Arab world in flux for the last few years, and with nuclear negotiations with Iran at a critical stage, it is only logical to ask why President Obama has been pursuing so passionately a solution to one of the most intractable problems in diplomatic history.

One explanation might be the personal character and worldview of Barack Obama. Coming in as a symbol of hope and change, and promising a departure from old politics, Obama has been a firm believer that a peaceful solution can be found if only one tries hard. In a book written three years prior to his presidency and characteristically titled The Audacity of Hope, Obama did ponder “the possible futility of believing that [the Middle East] conflict might somehow end in our time, or that America, for all its power, might have any lasting say over the course of the world.” [2] But he did not linger on such distressing thoughts for too long. As he goes on to say:

[A]s difficult as the work may seem, I believe we have an obligation to engage in efforts to bring about peace in the Middle East, not only for the benefit of the people of the region, but for the safety and security of our own children as well. And perhaps the world’s fate depends not just on the events of its battlefields; perhaps it depends just as much on the work we do in those quiet places that require a helping hand.[3]

 This sense of obligation was further invigorated when he was awarded the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, after only nine months into his presidency. The Nobel Peace committee took particular note of Obama’s efforts to restart Middle East peace talks and his reaching out to the Muslim world, after a major speech he delivered in Cairo where he promised “a new beginning.”[4] With all these factors in mind, Obama would have to live up to the expectations he himself created.

Another possible explanation is that Obama honestly believes that the time is ripe to strike a peace deal. He made that belief clear in an interview he gave to Jeffrey Goldberg of the Bloomberg View, in which he emphatically asked himself: “if not now, when?”[5] Obama not only believes that people on both sides are tired of war, but also perceives the head of the Palestinian Authority, Mahmoud Abbas, to be the “most politically moderate leader the Palestinians may ever have,” and the Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to be the most suitable leader to strike a peace deal because of “the political tradition that he comes out of and the credibility he has with the right inside of Israel.”[6] But the US President does not stop there. For Obama, the Palestinian issue would only be the beginning of a new geopolitical equilibrium he envisages for the Middle East; an equilibrium less turbulent and without active or proxy warfare. In an interview with David Remnick of The New Yorker, Obama argued that “what’s preventing [Israel and the Sunni states] from entering into even an informal alliance with at least normalized diplomatic relations is not that their interests are profoundly in conflict but the Palestinian issue, as well as a long history of anti-Semitism that’s developed over the course of decades there, and anti-Arab sentiment that’s increased inside of Israel based on seeing buses being blown up.”[7] So, perhaps, this balance-of-power explanation weighs more heavily in Obama’s mind for Iran is always considered to be the biggest threat to the United States and to the Middle East’s stability. As the military option is neither desirable nor viable, a US-backed Israeli-Sunni rapprochement is deemed to be the best alternative to counterbalance the Iranian threat; thus, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the first obstacle to overcome.

The US President has, indeed, been persistent in trying to break the logjam in Middle East peace, despite repeated setbacks and failures. The most important moment during Obama’s first tenure came in September 2010 when he finally brought together Netanyahu and Abbas for direct talks at the White House, only to see his efforts collapse in less than a month, due to tensions over the continuing construction of Israeli settlements.[8] Much to his dismay, Obama admitted on a televised interview in July 2012 his inability to move the peace process forward.[9] However, the US President was not discouraged. Since Obama’s reelection to a second term, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has spearheaded the administration's continuous efforts to reach a solution, working on a framework plan along the lines of “land for peace.”[10] After a three-year hiatus, the current round of talks began in July 2013, with John Kerry setting the 29th of April 2014 as a deadline to agree on a framework for negotiation. To put it simply, for the past nine months, Kerry has been trying to get Israelis and Palestinians to agree to negotiate about what they might negotiate about some time in the future. Kerry defended his efforts, saying that this is how things work.[11] As that deadline is now approaching, Obama has become personally involved in the process—a signal of his unabated interest in the matter—receiving both Netanyahu and Abbas at the White House on separate occasions and urging both leaders to make “tough decisions” and “take risks.”[12] The US President said it was his “hope and expectation” that Netanyahu and Abbas would reach beyond their differences.[13] But persistence and hope from the part of the United States is not all it takes to make a breakthrough in peace process. As Obama himself acknowledged, “the parties have to want it as well.”[14] The question is: do they?

Rhetoric aside, Israelis and Palestinians—each for their own reasons—are not exactly eager to do what it takes to reach a painful compromise, a mood best summed up by a quote Thomas Friedman claims is making the rounds at the State Department: the Palestinian leadership “wants a deal with Israel without any negotiations” and Israel’s leadership “wants negotiations with the Palestinians without any deal.”[15] As a matter of fact, Abbas visited Obama only after securing the support of the Arab league to resist any pressure from the US President to soften his positions.[16] In his own visit to the White House, Netanyahu said that Israel wants real peace, “and not a piece of paper;” but at the same time he insisted on one precondition that is unacceptable to the Palestinians: the recognition of the Jewishness of Israel.[17] Abbas has already declared that “there is no way” he can recognize Israel as a Jewish state because doing so would restrict the right of return of Palestinian refugees, as well as the rights of Israel’s large Arab minority.[18] To be sure, this is not the only point of disagreement, as the wearily familiar “core issues” of the conflict remain in place.[19]

Another ominous sign is that the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, has not gained the trust of either side. Israel’s defense minister, Moshe Ya'alon, was quoted as saying that Kerry was driven by “misplaced obsession and messianic fervor” in his quest for a peace accord, without taking into account Israel’s security needs.[20] By contrast, according to Daniel C. Kurtzer, a former American ambassador to Israel and Egypt, “one criticism of Kerry’s diplomacy is that he may be bending over so far to address Israeli concerns that he may not be able to meet the Palestinian concerns.”[21] It is also interesting to see how AIPAC—the most powerful pro-Israeli lobby in the United States—will deal with Kerry’s framework plan, as it is reportedly on bad terms with the White House and in no strong position to stand firm on Israeli interests, after its failure to undermine the US-Iran talks.[22] Needless to say, Hamas, which is in control of the Gaza strip but excluded from negotiations because of its classification as a terrorist organization, is unequivocally opposed to Kerry’s framework plan and, indeed, to any plan.[23]

After five years of striving for a negotiated solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama has lost much of his audacity and his hope. As the US President confessed in his interview with David Remnick, what he sees as the best outcome for his initiatives in the Middle East is to “be able to push the boulder partway up the hill and maybe stabilize it so it doesn’t roll back on us.”[24] Alas, if this was a veiled reference to the myth of Sisyphus, Obama knows very well that the boulder will inevitably fall back down the hill, only to start pushing it up all over again. Still, with that remark, Obama has offered the best definition of the Middle East peace process.

[1] Thomas L. Friedman, “Call White House, Ask for Obama”, The New York Times, (7/11/2009), http://nyti.ms/1fxbtw7    

[2] Barack Obama, The Audacity of Hope: Thoughts on Reclaiming the American Dream, Canongate Books, 2007, p. 323 

[3] Ibid.

[4] Steven Erlanger and Sheryl Gay Stolberg, “Surprise Nobel for Obama Stirs Praise and Doubts”, The New York Times, (9/10/2009), http://nyti.ms/1dD6e2Y ; The New York Times, “Text: Obama’s Speech in Cairo”, (4/6/2009), http://nyti.ms/1lcvgWq  

[5] Jeffrey Goldberg, “Obama to Israel -- Time is Running Out”, Bloomberg View, (2/3/2014), http://bv.ms/1gLcH8d  

[6] Ibid. 

[7] David Remnick, “Going the Distance. On and off the road with Barack Obama”, The New Yorker, (27/1/2014), http://nyr.kr/1aAIhW1  

[8] Josh Ruebner, Shattered Hopes: Obama’s Failure to Broker Israeli-Palestinian Peace, London: Verso, 2013, Ch. 3 & 4 

[9] Hilary Leila Krieger, “Obama: I failed to move Middle East peace forward”, The Jerusalem Post, (16/7/2012), http://bit.ly/1ltxaod  

[10] For leaked reports about the framework plan see: Robert Tait, “John Kerry peace plan "to recognise Israel as a Jewish state”, The Telegraph, (11/2/2014), http://bit.ly/1enr53z

[11] Bryan Bender, “Kerry fires back at critics of peace negotiations”, The Boston Globe, (27/2/2014), http://b.globe.com/1hVHIf6  

[12] David Nakamura, “Obama presses Israel’s Netanyahu on peace talks with Palestinians”, The Washington Post, (4/3/2014), http://wapo.st/1dX6uVg ; The Guardian, “Obama urges Mahmoud Abbas to take 'tough political risks' with peace talks”, (17/3/2014), http://bit.ly/1lctVPw  

[13] Margaret Talev and Jonathan Ferziger, “Obama Says Mideast Peace Possible at Netanyahu Meeting”, Bloomberg, (3/3/2014), http://bloom.bg/1mA5qys    

[14] Krieger, op. cit. 

[15] Friedman, op. cit. 

[16] Khaled Abu Toameh, “Why Abbas Will (Again) Say No”, Gatestone Institute, (11/3/2014), http://bit.ly/1cQNDuj

[17] Nakamura, op. cit. 

[18] Haaretz, “Abbas: ‘No Way’ to recognition of Israel as a Jewish state”, (9/3/2014), http://bit.ly/1dD5XNF ; Middle East Monitor, “Abba’s 3 nos to Obama”, (24/3/2014), http://bit.ly/1pndbXq

[19] For an outline of the core issues see: BBC, “Middle East peace talks: Where they stand”, (22/7/2013), http://www.bbc.com/news/world-middle-east-11138790  

[20] Shimon Shiffer, “Ya'alon: Kerry should win his Nobel and leave us alone”, Ynet News, (14/1/2014), http://bit.ly/1m5InHc  

[21] Mark Landler, “With Netanyahu, Obama Plays Bad Cop to Kerry’s Good Cop”, The New York Times, (6/3/2014), http://nyti.ms/1jiO4Ds

[22] Bob Dreyfuss, “Kerry’s Israel-Palestine Plan will Challenge AIPAC”, The Nation, (3/2/2014), http://bit.ly/1fRmTNC; id. “Can AIPAC stop the Obama-Kerry Plan for Israel-Palestine?” The Nation, (13/2/2014), http://bit.ly/1mKir8O  

[23] Middle East Monitor, “Hamas slams Kerry proposed framework agreement”, (26/1/2014), http://bit.ly/1k4piph  

[24] Remnick, op. cit.  

Spyros Katsoulas

Spyros Katsoulas

He graduated in 2006 from the Department of International & European Studies, Panteion University of Athens, and pursued a Masters degree in War Studies at King’s College of London, UK. In 2007 he was awarded a three-year scholarship for doctoral research in the field of American studies from the Greek State Scholarship Foundation (IKY). In 2012 he obtained his doctorate in International Relations from the University of Reading, UK. His supervisor was professor Colin S. Gray and the title of his thesis was: “The Guardian’s Dilemma: the Role of the United States in Greek-Turkish Relations.” Since 2012, he has been a research associate at the Institute of International Relations, where he coordinates the Military History Course at the Centre of Defence Studies, and a researcher and contributor at the Centre for Mediterranean, Middle East and Islamic Studies (CEMMIS). He is also an associate member of the Academy for Strategic Analyses and a research associate at the Thucydides Chair in Strategic Studies of the Hellenic National Defence Staff. Since 205, he has been employed as an adjunct instructor of strategy and international relations at the Hellenic National Defence College. His areas of interest include strategy, geopolitics, alliance theory, U.S. foreign policy, and military and diplomatic history. He is fluent in English and can communicate in Italian and Turkish.

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