What Obama Doesn't Understand About Israel and the Middle East

Article Summary
In an interview with Nahum Barnea, former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk discusses the relations between the two countries during the Obama administration, the power struggle within the Obama administration and the complicated regional interests behind the Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations over the last four years.

No wounds are more painful than the wounds of a friend. They strike directly. They hurt bitterly.

At the height of the US election season, a book was published earlier this month extensively covering the achievements and failures of the current administration’s foreign policy (Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy).

Martin Indyk wrote the chapters on the Middle East. Indyk served twice as the US ambassador to Israel and was a senior figure in peace negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians. Four years ago, he supported Hillary Clinton. After she lost in the Democratic primaries, he campaigned to get Obama elected. He warmly praised him before American Jews and Israelis.

No longer. The chapter he wrote presents a long list of colossal mistakes on the part of the US president, some due to inexperience, most because of a misunderstanding of the Arab-Israeli playing field, an ill-suited disposition and a misconception of the situation. Obama hadn’t expressed particular interest in regime change and democracy in the Arab world. Ironically, that’s the only field that has changed over the course of his presidency.

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Indyk, 61, is now serving as the vice president of the Brookings Institution, one of the more important political research institutes in the United States. His opponents may say that he is angry with Obama for not appointing him to a position in his cabinet. It seems to me that he is much angrier about the missed opportunities. Obama may have received the Nobel Peace Prize, but he didn’t bring the peace.

The logical conclusion from his writing, as I told him, is that one should go out and vote for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate. “That’s worth a conversation,” he responded. Indyk visited Israel last week. We sat together on Wednesday [May 23] on the pretty patio of the King David Hotel, and searched for whom to blame.

“Obama was a president of historic proportions from day one of his term,” Indyk opened by saying. “You can’t expect any less from the first African-American president. From his first day in the White House, he put the Middle East at the top of his political agenda. Unfortunately, his personal involvement only made the situation worse.

“The vision he presented was extremely challenging, and the promise enormous. But his distant, analytical, cold approach didn’t suit the Middle Eastern climate. Leaders in the Middle East — both Israeli and Arabs — rely on personal relations that they develop with the president. Obama doesn’t develop relationships. That’s his personality.”

There’s no arguing that on everything related to the Israeli-Arab conflict, Obama’s first term amounts to a total failure, I said. He promised to bring peace, but didn’t even manage to renew the negotiations that had gone on consistently during the Bush years. The Arab world didn’t believe him. The Israelis didn’t trust him. The questions are: How should the responsibility be divided between the sides, ow responsible is Obama and how responsible are Netanyahu, Abbas and the Arab world?

“My experience,” Indyk said, “shows that in the Middle East, you need three to tango – an Israeli leader and an Arab leader who are wiling to take risks, and an American president who is willing to invest his time and prestige to convince them to take risks. There was no such willingness, not on the part of Netanyahu and not Abbas. There is enough blame to attribute to everyone.”

How was Obama’s approach different from that of Clinton and Bush?

“Clinton sought to convince Israelis that he was one of them, that he understands them and feels as they do. At the same time, he tried to convince the Arabs that he was serious about solving their problems.

“Obama took the opposite approach. He wasn’t going to be Clinton, and he wasn’t going to be  Bush. Bush, said Obama, was close to Israel. That didn’t help America and it didn’t help Israel: Israel didn’t get the peace it so desperately needs, and the relationship between the Americans and the Arab world had been destroyed. ‘I’ll go down a different path.’

“He didn’t understand the Arabs. On all matters relating to the conflict, the Arabs don’t believe that the United States is on their side. Its alliance is with Israel. They expect the president, because of his closeness with Israel, to get concessions out of it.

“He also didn’t understand the Israelis. He gave Israel aid and security cooperation at levels unseen in previous administrations. Netanyahu and Barak also admit this. He didn’t understand that the Israelis need sympathy, to be embraced. As soon as he made them feel like he didn’t care, that his heart wasn’t with them, he lost his ability to influence public opinion. And as soon as he lost public opinion, he lost the government. Netanyahu understood this: When he argued with President Clinton in his first term, his popularity fell in the polls; when he argued with Obama, it climbed.”

Up a tree

The turning point was Obama’s speech at Cairo University in June 2009. I was there. At the end of the speech, I spoke with two of Obama’s top advisers, Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod. I told them that Israelis took the speech hard. The fact that he compared the Palestinian suffering with the Holocaust infuriated them, and for him to have chosen to speak in Cairo and not visit Jerusalem was seen as an affront.

The two looked at me silently, as if they were thinking, “We knew that this would happen, we warned him but he refused to listen.” It later became clear that Obama had written the speech himself, against the advice of his advisers.

“Before Cairo, there was Riyadh,” Indyk said. “Obama demanded that Netanyahu freeze settlement construction. Netanyahu said that if the Saudis would give something, that would help. Obama decided to fly to Cairo via Riyadh. The Saudis would agree to take some Yemenite prisoners detained in Guantanamo and would make a public gesture to Israel. The meeting wasn’t prepared well. King's Abdallah's negative responses to both requests came to Obama as a shock.

“Morocco, Qatar and the Gulf states, which had been willing to respond with gestures to an Israeli decision to freeze construction, took the offer back after the Saudi refusal. Obama lost his ability to nudge the Arabs. And then came the Cairo speech, and Obama lost his ability to nudge the Israelis.

“The demand to freeze settlements wasn’t new: different presidents raised the same demand and at some points, they succeeded. Obama demanded not to consider natural growth. That was a new demand. Later, he empowered Mitchell to negotiate a compromise. He thus put Abu Mazen Abbas in an impossible situation: he couldn’t agree to less than what Obama had demanded. 'Obama,' Abu Mazen complained, 'chased me up a tree. I have no way down.'

“That’s how Obama works. First he creates a challenging goal. Then he looks for a compromise. In the end, neither side is happy.”

The same dynamics were at play when the Palestinians sought full membership at the United Nations. Obama’s speech gave them the impression that Obama would support the move, but when Abbas went to the UN, the Americans vetoed the move.

Governments in the Middle East, I said, took Obama’s betrayal of Mubarak hard.

“It’s borne of Obama’s coldness,” said Indyk. “His distance. When the revolution erupted in Tunisia, he understood it was an important development, and important for the United States to be on the right side of history. I think that his judgment was right — Mubarak had no chance of surviving. But the way he did it humiliated an ally. He indicated to every ruler in the Middle East that should he find himself in trouble, he’d be on his own.

Bahrain was different. He learned a lesson. Anyway, the Saudi crown prince told him that if he acts in Bahrain as he did with Mubarak, the Saudis would cut ties.”

In Libya, I said, Obama preferred to act from behind.

“The decision was the right one,” said Indyk. “Its expression was terrible. Additionally, the Russians and the Chinese claimed that the United States was misleading them in the Security Council. They refused to cooperate with the United States in Syria.”

I asked if he intends to vote for Romney.

Indyk laughed. “You’re twisting the message,” he said. “I’ll vote for Obama. Why? Because there are issues other than the Middle East; because his heart is in the right place, because I hope that if he has another opportunity to promote peace, he’ll do it differently.”

More that what you expected

Will Obama attack Iran, I asked.

“It shouldn’t be ruled out,” said Indyk. “In my opinion, there’s a higher chance that Obama will order a military strike than Romney. Obama believes he has a mission: he needs to create a world order led by the United States. Romney doesn’t have those ambitions.”

But you convinced me that with Obama, there’s a huge gap between rhetoric and action, I said. You convinced me that after 11 years and two wars, US public opinion isn’t willing to open a new front in the Middle East.

“Your comparison is unfair,” he said. “On Iran, it’s not about an abstract front but rather policy. Obama is convinced that an Iranian bomb will spark an arms race in the Middle East which will topple the Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’s true that American public opinion wouldn’t like a military operation. Therefore Obama will order it — if he orders it — after the elections.”

Netanyahu and Barak don’t believe in negotiations with Iran, I said.

“Israel’s response needs to be skeptical, regardless of what exactly is agreed upon,” he said. “When others negotiate instead of you, you have all the reasons to be suspicious that you’re getting sold.

“If the Iranians ultimately agree to transfer the enriched materials to another state, and to stop work on the military facility, that would be more than what you expected. You would have no choice but to declare victory and return home — to negotiations with the Palestinians.”

Not final

The Knesset this week approved in second and third readings a law that determines in which instances and how much airlines will pay to travelers whose flights were missed or delayed as a result of airport security. The law will benefit anyone who has gotten stuck at Ben Gurion Airport, but it makes the Arab population of Israel particularly happy.

Article 5, sub-section 6 of the law determines that a passenger who acted in accordance with regulations but missed his flight because of a security examination will be compensated.

MK Ahmad Tibi and his fellow Ra’am-Ta’al party members proposed the law. It’s a small law, but significant. Firstly, it benefits a slice of the population that the Knesset usually ignores. Second, it proves that Arab MKs can serve their real voters, Israeli citizens in Taybeh and Nazareth; make proposals and have influence. Shin Bet (Israel's internal security) representatives opposed the law. Ofir Akunis (Likud) held it up for months in the Finance Committee, until he was replaced by Karmel Shama. Third, it reveals the rivalries amongst Arab parties: Jamal Zahalka and Haneen Zoabi were in the plenum during the vote, but preferred to abstain.   

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Found in: us, peace talks, peace, palestinians obama, palestinians, israel
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