By YORAM ETTINGER, USA TODAY—
Is Barack Obama learning from history by avoiding the crucial errors of his first visit to the Middle East shortly after becoming president?
In 2009, when he visited Cairo to speak directly to the Arab world, Obama anticipated engagement, rather than confrontation, with Iran, which threatened the survival of pro-U.S. Arab regimes in the Persian Gulf and beyond.
That year Obama anticipated an Arab Spring march toward pro-U.S. democracies, not the stormy anti-U.S. Arab Winter that has arrived. Not unlike President Jimmy Carter’s reckless abandonment of the Iranian shah and his courting of Ayatollah Khomeini, Obama turned his back on America’s ally in Egypt, Hosni Mubarak, and extended instead his hand to America’s inherent enemy, the subversive Muslim Brotherhood.
The desertion of Mubarak undermined U.S. reliability in the eyes of pro-U.S. Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf states. Obama promoted the United Nations as the quarterback of international relations, and the United States as a multilateral mediator rather than a determined military superpower.
The policy has eroded America’s posture of deterrence, which is the backbone of the dwindling club of pro-U.S. Arab regimes.
In 2013, Obama is increasingly aware that a nuclear Iran would primarily target vital U.S. economic, national and homeland security interests. He is better acquainted with the threat of the Arab Winter, the potential disintegration of a few Arab countries and the intensification of Islamic terrorism.
His recent visit to Israel was meant to reassure pro-U.S. Arab regimes, who dread a nuclear Iran and are disillusioned with the U.S. focus on diplomacy and economic sanctions. These regimes doubt Washington’s intent to employ the only effective option against Iran: a surgical, disproportional military pre-emption with no boots on the ground. Obama wants to secure the remaining pro-U.S. Arab regimes in the face of the conventional and chemical lava erupting on the Syrian street, which could sweep Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and other Arab countries.
In 2009, Obama considered the Palestinian issue the epicenter of Middle East turbulence and anti-U.S. Islamic terrorism, a facilitator of an anti-Iran Arab coalition and the crown jewel of his Arab policy making. In 2013, the seismic Arab street, from northwest Africa to the Persian Gulf, has exposed the marginal role played by the Palestinian issue in shaping Arab priorities and Middle East developments.
Irrespective of Palestinian-oriented rhetoric, Obama’s recent visit was driven by Iran’s nuclearization, the erupting Arab street and the outcry by America’s Arab allies, not by the Arab-Israeli conflict or the Palestinian issue.
In 2009, the U.S. president assumed that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was about the size and not the existence of Israel, hence the formula of land for peace. He insisted that painful Israeli concessions would pacify the Palestinians, rather than whet their appetites and radicalize their policies. He believed that his goodwill and charismatic communications skills would achieve the Israel-Palestinian agreement that eluded his White House predecessors.
But this is a region that has not experienced intra-Arab peaceful coexistence, tolerance or compliance with agreements in the last 1,400 years. Obama promoted “Give peace a chance” in a place where too many sanctify martyrdom, such as suicide bombings, rather than life.
Today, Obama still harbors much of his 2009 approach towards the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, though he recognizes that pressuring Israel radicalizes the Palestinians. And he continues to ignore the centrality to Middle East peace of Islam, which prohibits “infidel” sovereignty in the abode of Islam.
Despite the U.S. financial assistance and diplomatic embrace provided the Palestinian Authority, its President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayyad have moved closer to Hamas, Russia, China, North Korea and Iran. The corrosive effects of anti-U.S., anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiments remain prevalent in Palestinian schools, mosques and media.
Is Obama aware that viewing Israel and the Palestinians as morally equivalent is the greatest flaw of his strategy? Israel is a role model of how to conduct counterterrorism, and its alliance with the U.S. is unconditional. The Palestinians are a role model of international terrorism, past allies of Saddam Hussein, Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden. Is he aware that unprecedented Israeli gestures for peace such as the 1993 Oslo Accords and the 2005 uprooting of Jewish settlements in Gaza were interpreted as weakness by the Palestinians who reject Israel’s right to exist?
In 2009, the U.S. president approached Israel as a minor strategic ally, possibly a burden, obstructing U.S. ties with Muslims. In 2013, he highlighted Israel as a stable, reliable democratic ally of the United States. That is in contrast with the increasingly violent, intolerant, unpredictable anti-U.S. Arab street.
U.S.-Israel strategic cooperation has been considerably improved and is independent of the countries disagreements over the Palestinian issue, the result of regional and global developments that are much more significant and dangerous than the Palestinian issue.
Shared values, mutual threats, joint interests — and Israel’s cutting-edge defense and commercial technologies and battle tactics — underscore the mutually beneficial win-win ties between the U.S. and Israel. To accomplish his aims in this region, Obama must be prepared to do more than extend a hand of peace and understanding as he did in 2009. He may have to strengthen the U.S.’s posture of deterrence and power projection due to the threat of Iran and the roiling Arab street. Apart from the Palestinian issue, Obama may have to walk the military walk, not just talk the diplomatic and economic talk.
Yoram Ettinger is a columnist at Israel Hayom Newspaper where this article was first published.