Obama not well prepared for test

By Emanuele Ottolenghi, May 19, 2011
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President Barack Obama appointed former senator George Mitchell as his special envoy for Middle East peace within days of taking office, in January 2009. The appointment of a high-profile American statesman with Northern Ireland peace under his belt as the first foreign policy decision of the new president signalled Obama's intention to prioritise Middle East peace in his foreign policy agenda.

It is thus remarkable that the President, merely a week after Mitchell resigned from his post after two years of failed efforts, will offer two major foreign policy speeches on the Middle East - including one on Sunday at the annual AIPAC conference.

When it comes to the region, speeches have become substitutes for policy since, so far, speeches may be all that President Obama can show for in his first term. Obama has already launched his bid for re-election in 2012 and desperately needs Jewish support - which he thinks he can gain, despite having undermined Israel, America's only reliable ally in the Middle East, and pandered to the Palestinians' worst instincts for two years. In fact, Obama's speech is designed to both pre-empt Netanyahu's expected peace proposal speech to a joint US Congress and to reassure increasingly sceptical Jewish donors that his re-election bid is something worth supporting. Although Obama cannot be blamed for the turmoil that has engulfed the Middle East during his presidency, he is at fault for doing too little to support pro-democracy forces in countries hostile to the US (Iran in 2009, Syria in 2011), while throwing US allies and friends overboard without first asking whether there is any strategic gain in such policy (Egypt, Libya, Tunisia).

Similarly, while Obama is not at fault for inheriting a stalled peace process where a divided Palestinian polity headed by a leadership past its electoral expiry date must negotiate with an Israeli right-wing government, it was Obama's choice to turn the settlements into a fetish - thus playing straight into the hands of Palestinian intransigence. It was his choice to renege on the commitments made to Israel by his predecessor - thus eroding Israeli confidence in America's role. And it was his choice to create a self-imposed deadline for Palestinian statehood in September 2011.

Obama turned the settlements into a fetish

The Palestinian decision to refuse to engage in any meaningful talks with Israel since March 2009 and pursue instead a unilateral strategy of statehood through the UN is a by-product of all the above. Obama may succeed in offering his voters reassurances while making Netanyahu's exercise in public diplomacy futile. But the moment of truth is coming and by September we will know whether a president who thought he could bring peace to the region will end up presiding over its descent into renewed conflict.

Emanuele Ottolenghi is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defence of Democracies

Last updated: 4:26pm, May 19 2011