Assessing Obama’s Middle East trip

Marwan Bishara answers three questions on Obama’s recent trip to the Middle East.

Barack Obama, Benjamin Netanyahu
Despite multiple embarrassments during his first term, Obama is determined to improve relations with Israel [AP]

What got your attention most about the visit of President Obama’s to Israel and Palestine?

I am amazed by how much he spoke and how little he said that is new or actionable in terms of the diplomatic process and the two-state solution, particularly since Obama said quite firmly last October, “When I go to Israel, I want to make sure that we are actually moving something forward.”

With all that’s happening right now with Iran, Syria and overall tension in the greater Middle East, I wonder how Obama can talk for so long and say absolutely nothing. On this visit, all we’ve seen are long speeches with dreamy language and no concrete substance.

Of course, this is not entirely a surprise. Last week, US Deputy National Security Adviser Ben Rhodes emphasised, “We’ve been very clear that this visit [to Israel] is not about trying to lay down a new initiative or complete our work on a particular issue.” No, it’s all about face.

Obama embraced the Zionist narrative about Palestine as the historic home of the Jewish people more than any American president that came before him. This rendered Palestinians – the indigenous inhabitants – guests in their own homeland.

He incorporated all of Israel’s security arguments into his own political lexicon. Arab anti-Semitism, terrorism and rejection of Israel’s existence, he reasons, are to blame for six decades of war, occupation and dispossession.

Obama pitched a vision of peace, free of occupation and dispossession, to be achieved through Israeli “sacrifices”, not as the long-delayed and necessary restoration of the inalienable Palestinian right to live in liberty and security in their own homeland.

Amid the pleasantries, Obama was sending an implicit warning to Israel. While it can bank on America as an ally, Israel will be far less secure, democratic and more isolated, should it fail to achieve peace.

Obama, however, was not prepared to offer the Palestinians anything remotely upsetting to the Israeli Right and, instead, restricted his comments to lofty narratives about the future, and the importance of economic exchanges to achieve coexistence: the mirror image of Netanyahu’s “economic peace”, albeit between occupied and occupier.

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Obama appeared casual and personable with both Israelis and Palestinians, but was uncommitted to rectify the injustice in Palestine. The US commander-in-speech seemed bent on achieving peace one speech at a time.

Obama’s relations with Israel seemed to suffer over the last four years. Is that the reason for this visit?

The personal relationship between Obama and Netanyahu has been anything but close over the last four years, ever since the US turned Left and Israel continued to steer to the Right. But the inter-state relationship hardly suffered. In fact, it prospered.

America’s relationship with Israel has continued to thrive through heightened and, at times, unprecedented bilateral security and economic exchanges. As former Israeli Minister of Defence Ehud Barak put it, the relationship has never been stronger than under Obama.

This is especially important because it testifies to the fact that their “special relationship” continues despite the personal chemistry of its leaders, and regardless of the dramatic changes in both countries as well as in the Middle East region.

Political tensions have surfaced on more than a few occasions, notably after Obama’s Cairo speech in 2009 when he called for a freeze on settlements, and again in the spring of 2010 when Israel announced the build-up of 1,600 new ones, coinciding with US Vice President Joseph Biden’s visit to Jerusalem.

But Netanyahu’s popularity in the US Congress – thanks to the Israeli lobby – and his rejection of any settlement freeze as a precondition for restarting “peace talks” has left Obama with fewer supporters domestically, and less room to manoeuvre on the “peace process” front.

That’s why Obama is visiting at the outset of his second term. He’s trying to repair his administration’s relations with the Israeli government and its public opinion, and allow more leeway within the Democratic Party as well as in the Republican-dominated Congress.

It also allowed him to try to manage the deepening crisis caused by a dangerous political void in Israel/Palestine and pre-empt an explosive situation over Iran’s nuclear programme from deteriorating further in an ever-unstable region.

Was the visit successful in this regard?

Any serious analysis of Obama’s policies must begin with his pragmatism. That’s how he functioned throughout his political career, and especially over the last four years.

Despite his vision of change, he is a realist to the core. He sounds like an idealist but leads pragmatically. And although he cited Israel’s founding father David Ben-Gurion in saying that “in order to be a realist in Israel, you must believe in miracles”, Israel’s continuous dependence on the US and its own military is a demonstration of its realism.

Be that as it may, Obama’s visit to the region, first and foremost, had a domestic objective. He has made it clear that his domestic agenda is the main priority of his second term. But to ensure a constructive political atmosphere at home, Obama had to avert a major Middle East catastrophe, with Israel at its heart.

This meant assuring Israelis once and for all that America does indeed have their back when it comes to Iran’s nuclear programme, and making it clear to Iran that diplomacy is the best option.

If he succeeds, managing expectations in Palestine and the crisis with Iran will ease the pressure on his administration back home, allowing the President to implement his agenda.

Wishful thinking or not, Obama has already made new political appointments to his cabinet – starting with John Kerry as Secretary of State and Chuck Hagel as Secretary of Defence – that will allow him to downsize the US military and its involvement in the Middle East.

Paradoxically, Obama has moved Washington the closest it has ever been to Israel (perhaps) in order to begin decoupling US strategic doctrine from Israel’s. The two have become overly entangled during his predecessor’s terms in office culminating in a mindset that led to the war and occupation of Iraq, a mindset Obama vowed to end.

Marwan Bishara is the senior political analyst of Al Jazeera English and the author of The Invisible Arab: The Promise and Peril of the Arab Revolution.

Follow him on Twitter: @marwanbishara