Obama’s Long Game on Middle East Peace

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Charles Dharapak / AP

President Barack Obama makes an opening statement during his first news conference after Election Day, on Nov. 14, 2012.

With their powers of persuasion fading in Congress, second-term U.S. Presidents often look abroad to cement their legacies. Brokering peace in the Middle East is the holy grail of such global goals. Ronald Reagan tried it. So did Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton. George W. Bush might have tried it if the U.S. economy hadn’t been collapsing during his final years in office.

(MORE: What Should the Middle East Expect from Obama’s Second Term?)

President Obama is already planning his legacy-making bid, hoping to succeed where his predecessors failed. Negotiating peace is not going to be a quick process. Obama took the first step last week when he dispatched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Gaza, seeking to build goodwill with Israel, Egypt and the Palestinians. But what will be a long game of diplomatic chess has only just begun.

When he took office in 2009, Obama named ex-Senator George Mitchell to be his special envoy to the Middle East. But that investment proved fruitless: Mitchell soon ran into a series of obstacles. Before Obama even took office, Israel launched a ground invasion of Gaza. A year later, Vice President Joe Biden’s visit to Israel was overshadowed by the construction of new settlements, an issue that evolved into a crisis later in 2010. In early 2011, Mitchell stepped down in frustration, saying negotiations had “hit a brick wall.” A few months later, Obama’s relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was strained by a contentious visit by the Israeli leader to Washington. And throughout 2012, Netanyahu seemed to favor Obama’s rival, Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney. By the time Obama was re-elected in November, the two leaders had never seemed further apart.

As violence escalated in Gaza last week, Obama could have exacted some political revenge on Netanyahu, who is up for re-election Jan. 22. But Obama didn’t cozy up to Netanyahu’s rivals, as Netanyahu did to Romney during the U.S. election, briefing the challenger as well as the incumbent. Obama backed without question Israel’s right to defend itself and sent Clinton to broker a deal when needed, risking his own political capital if the cease-fire fails. Netanyahu is likely to get re-elected, so Obama is trying to set aside their differences and start fresh. If the Israeli op-ed pages are any indication, Obama seems to have bought himself some goodwill.

(PHOTOS: A New Gaza War: Israel and Palestinian Militants Trade Fire)

Obama also spent time persuading Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy to use his sway over Hamas — Morsy’s political party, the Muslim Brotherhood, spawned Hamas years ago — to bring about a cease-fire. This is the first time the two leaders have worked together on regional issues, and for the most part, it was a success. The cease-fire in Gaza is tenuous, and U.S. politicians called on Obama to denounce Morsy for asserting power over Egypt’s courts shortly after Clinton left Cairo. But if Morsy and Obama can develop a working relationship, it would be a significant step toward peace.

Morsy may be even more important than his predecessor, Hosni Mubarak, because of his party’s influence with Hamas, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. and Europe. When Netanyahu is asked what the biggest obstacle to peace is, he says that he has no negotiating partner. The Palestinians have been split between the Palestinian Liberation Organization, led by Mahmoud Abbas, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. One of the results of the Gaza conflict has been to bring the two factions closer than ever. Hamas flags were spotted flying in the West Bank. And Hamas for the first time publicly backed Abbas’ expected move next week to ask the United Nations to recognize Palestine as an official observer state, an action expected to pass despite harsh criticism from Israel and the U.S. Coming out of the Gaza conflict, Hamas is on stronger political footing. Which is why Morsy is key to getting Palestinians to the negotiating table.

The peace process is a marathon, not a sprint. It will likely be years before Obama turns his full attention to the issue and before all those involved are in a place where they can negotiate. There are other obstacles: Jordan, which borders the West Bank and is home to millions of Palestinian refugees, is becoming increasingly unstable as the Arab Spring spreads. Iran remains a troublemaker, inciting violence through its allies Hamas and Hizballah to Israel’s north in Lebanon. And Syria’s dangerous disintegration needs to be addressed. But if this week has shown anything, it’s Obama intent to revisit Middle East peace in his second term. Maybe he’ll even earn that Nobel Prize.

MORE: Foreign Policy: Big Promises, Harsh Realities

26 comments
drudown
drudown

President Obama's approach should be widely endorsed. If the last decade has taught us anything, it is that mere social unrest is not going to materially induce the Middle East leaders into redistributing wealth to increase social stability, much less denounce terrorism. It is a clever trick Middle East leaders play on their own subjects: they blame the West for the inequities at home and, notwithstanding the uncounted riches between them, they refuse to acknowledge that their entire cities can be destroyed by the West as easily as King Augustus the Strong could smash a pewter plate. 

Time will seal if their own inability to change will seal their Fate.

Cloud
Cloud

Please allow me to say that its only a zionist dirty game trying to control the world and make it ready for israel to rule it and few years later all the politics meetings and everything the media will talk about wont be america anymore it will be all about israel..so now america is fighting and sacrificing the innocent people everywhere to take down the middle east wich is the only area left for them to control..i just want to say that they dont care about us..

Cloud
Cloud

obama's plans in the middle east is to let the revolution kill their own presidents 

paulejb
paulejb

"Maybe he’ll even earn that Nobel Prize."

More than likely he will have to return the original prize he received for spurious reasons.

paulejb
paulejb

Since the Obama administration policy, originally espoused by Rodney King (Can't we all just get along?), seems to have failed, it behooves Barack Obama to come up with a policy that is not quite so simple minded and naive.

nik
nik

Peace can never be as long as there in injustice. Peace is not rocket science in this conflict its very simple. But US and its allies have no interest in stopping injustice in this conflict. 51 children blown to pieces in this 1 week conflict alone but the killers will always be the good guys. They take comfort in Israel being armed to the teeth and Palestinians being defenseless. Its about power to them not justice. Rest is all rhetoric.

shepherdwong
shepherdwong

"When you ask Netanyahu what the biggest obstacle to peace is, he says that he has no negotiating partner."

Really? No mention of planning to steal all of the Land of Israel Hebrews willed to themselves when they wrote their bible? Go figure.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Land_of_Israel

PlumbLine
PlumbLine

Mark 13:19-20....19 For there will be greater anguish in those days than at any time since God created the world. And it will never be so great again. 20 In fact, unless the Lord shortens that time of calamity, not a single person will survive. But for the sake of his chosen ones he has shortened those days.

MrObvious
MrObvious

If people want a solution to the Middle East issue then look no further than Ireland.

And there's nothing USA can do about it. But we can cut our ties to the poison and that is to build a longterm solution that does not include our need to act as police in the region because we heart their black gold.

The rest is simply a matter for both sides to stop bombing each others long enough to figure out that diplomacy and politics are two instruments greater then the sum of all the weapons each side can throw at each others.

cent-fan
cent-fan

This article is more than a little simplistic... or actually it reads far more into events and Obama's efforts than it's worth. I'm sure Obama, being a practical leader with his eyes wide open, is treading water and waiting for the people being directly destroyed by the rats nest politics in the Middle East to grow up and learn how humanity works. There's no point raising our stakes in the Palestinian dispute. History has shown no matter what side you're on, you lose.

I have faith that the Arab Spring will be a long, circuitous route to get back to exactly where we are now.  The fundamentals haven't changed... in fact they've only gotten more unstable.  As long as oil is the only industry, the number of people needed to make it profitable is low, and the wealth is controlled by a small club, the jobless general population will go elsewhere for answers, and blaming "outside" forces is the easiest path (civil war not withstanding).  It works as a distraction in this country often enough.

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

The President should do the same in his second term that he did in his first.  There is no point in involving us in that mess.   

ViableOp
ViableOp

And how did pursuing peace in the Middle East work out for the previous Presidents?  The only President that had a modicum of success was Carter and that was in his first and only term.  

smehgol
smehgol

 There may not be a right side, but our supporting the Jewish state's continuing siege and apartheid occupation of Palestinian is the wrongside. Abandoning and aggressively isolating the Jewish state would force it abandon its paranoid pursuit of invulnerability, territorialconquest and supremacist empire in, and beyond, the Mideast. There is no greater or kinder support that America could render to both theMideast and its “inseparable Mideast ally.”

paulejb
paulejb

@nik 

"Palestinians being defenseless?"

Were those Roman Candles that Hamas was firing at the population centers of Israel?

DonQuixotic
DonQuixotic

@Fla4Me 

Seriously.  Get us off oil as much as possible and watch with disinterest as the Middle East tears itself apart.

bobell
bobell

@ Fla4Me No point as long as the oil-rich governments that support Hamas and the Palestinians don't decide to turn off the spigot. Forget the moral arguments and be entirely selfish -- What will happen to world oil prices if the Saudis or Iraqis or Iranians or Kuwaitis stop pumping oil or cut the quantities?  You think they wouldn't do that?  They already have, just not lately.

Besides, as Jay says, this is Obama's chance to earn the Nobel Prize retroactively.  Let's see if he can do it.

jmac
jmac

@ViableOp It's going to happen eventually.  Even England made peace with the IRA.  Why would anyone object to diplomacy from the US playing a hand?   If the  president that finally got us Universal Health Care can broker a Peace Agreement in the Middle East he deserves to be on that mountain with Lincoln.   

bobell
bobell

@smehgol It's not paranoia if they're really out to destroy you. The destruction of Israel is the avowed intent of Iran and its puppets Hamas and Hizbollah.

Teddy Roosevelt understood the Middle East dynamic.  If only Bibi would learn to speak softly.

bobell
bobell

Unfortunately, any sort of energy independence is years away, and even with full cooperation from Congress and industry the Obama presidency will end with us still at the mercy of the Middle East oil kingdoms.  I certainly agree that we'd be in a lot better shape if we weren't at their mercy, but let's not indulge in fantasies.  Rather, let's draw motivation from the current mess to cut our economic ties to the Middle East as fast as possible.

The sort of position a United States free of oil dependence should take on Israel, Palestine, and the broader Middle East is of academic interest only as long as we remain oil-dependent.  Sorry.

mrxexon
mrxexon

@bobell Why?

Could it be that we in the US are ultimately resposible for the mess in the Middle East? Yes. It revolves around the way we support the zionist state of Israel and it's pre-emptive strikes and targeted assassinations and ethnic cleansing and apartheid. Strike one.

 It also has to do with oil. Mostly Iranian oil. It was our thirst for it that led to the fall of our puppet the Shah, and opened the door for radical Islam to take over. Strike two.

And finally, the US is being used as the muscle for this "New World Order" you keep hearing about. The entire Middle East is in the process of being reshaped by this force. All under the guise of this so called war on terror. Now, these people don't hate us because of our freedoms. They hate us because of what we do to them. Either directly or indirectly. People get tired of being demonized for the sake of an agenda that even most Americans can't see yet. Our huge military is in service to something other than the defense of this country or we the people. Most of you don't even notice.

 Strike three.

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

@SixSixSix @Fla4Me @bobell I agree with you.  I don't have as much a problem with parking war ship in important places.  I do have a problem with wasting time and energy getting in between the Palestinians and the Israelis. 

SixSixSix
SixSixSix

@Fla4Me @bobell The value of controlling the transport of oil out of the Gulf is high whether it goes to the US or not. The Chinese have to be careful as long as the Fifth Fleet could choke off that oil upon which they depend much more than the US.

Fla4Me
Fla4Me

@bobell I think I just read that the US would be come a net exporter of oil in 2014.  (correct me please)  It just seems that with the increased vol. of oil and natural gas becoming available with advances in technology, that some leadership on green energy (a la the Picken's Plan) could have us close to independence sooner rather then later.  That aside, all the oil producing countries have an ever increasing interest in keeping the oil flowing and the money coming in.  Instability is in no one's interest except the religious extremists in Iran.  I think we agree but I'm a little more optimistic on the timeline of possible independence.