Analysis: Obama is in trouble

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, August 6, 2009

President Obama’s Middle East policy looks to be in trouble.

His engagement offer to Iran has fallen flat. His lofty speeches to Muslim audiences have failed to sway public opinion towards America. His demands to Israel that it halt any settlement activity have led to an unprecedented row with its government.

Worse, the perceived US pressure on Israel has left Arab leaders with the false impression that they have nothing to deliver. Since the US started its new bid on settlements, no Arab leader has agreed to any concession to Israel, symbolic or otherwise.

The Fatah congress that took place in Bethlehem this week reaffirmed Palestinian rejection of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state — effectively barring any meaningful deal from taking place in the near future.
And Mr Obama’s decision to send a new ambassador to Damascus was welcomed with the arrest of a top Syrian human rights lawyer.

This is lamentable. The only partner in the region who is actually delivering the goods to the administration is Israel. Dozens of checkpoints have been removed. Outposts that the more dovish Olmert-Livni government had dared not touch were uprooted.

Mr Netanyahu has clearly set out the conditions under which a Palestinian state would be acceptable to Israel — and they are not dissimilar from what his more dovish predecessors delineated during the Oslo era. He has offered immediate resumption of negotiations — which the Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas has repeatedly turned down.

What has Mr Netanyahu got in return? Nothing from the Arab world, except a hardening of stances.
And from America? A public row over settlements that undermines America’s credibility (administration officials have questioned whether understandings reached on the settlements between Mr Bush and Mr Sharon were binding); a worrying set of statements about Israel’s legitimacy; and an Iran policy which is still all over the place.

It is not surprising though. Every US administration comes into office thinking it will do the opposite of its predecessor to fix the Middle East mess. So far, they have all failed.

Several months into office, President Obama must be discovering that the school of realists, peace processors and “Palestine is the core issue” experts do not understand the Middle East.

Palestinian rejectionism, the fickle character of Arab rulers, the brutality of Iran’s regime and the uncompromising nature of its hegemonic ambitions, to say nothing of Syria’s radicalism — that is the real reality, and it will soon force the administration to reconsider its approach.

The sooner, the better.

Dr Emanuele Ottolenghi is the director of the Brussels-based Transatlantic Institute

    Last updated: 2:26pm, November 8 2010