Obama in power (9): To strengthen peace in the Middle East, the first big step is in the US

It’s a big week for US policy and the Middle East, a defining moment for the Obama administration’s impact. What happens this week will not alone be enough to achieve regional cooperation with the US on peace and security but, if it goes wrong, that will be enough to make that cooperation next to impossible for several years again. 

Obama has talks with the Saudi leadership in Riyadh on Wednesday 3rd and the next day in Cairo is making one of the most heavily pre-boosted speeches in recent political history. This is when, we are being told, we will find out about Obama and his team’s plan for resolving the Israel-Palestine conflict. More important, we will find out how credible his approach is to the numerous different opinion groups in the region, beyond the feel-good effect that he achieves with superb speech-making abilities and the natural advantage of not being Bush.

Obama needs this week’s effort to work not just so that people whose lives and well-being are threatened by the violence that repetitively erupts in the Israel-Palestine conflict can find more peaceful prospects. He also needs it to work so the region can find a new, more stable, more peaceful security dispensation, within which US interests and allies will be more securely positioned. He needs it to work so that his policy in Iraq can work, and so that the US can have a more stable relationship with Iran, including over the nuclear weapons issue, which in turn he needs not only for regional security as a whole but also so as to gain Iranian cooperation over Afghanistan.

The US cannot force any of the important groups to do anything. There are some on whom pressure can be exerted and there is of course a serious amount of influence that derives from the great economic weight and military power of the US. But the experience of the Bush administration showed that even when force is used, the US cannot force its way to success; it has to have partners and cooperation. One among many problems of the Bush administration was that its key players were too simple-minded to understand the limitations of old-fashioned out-and-out force – and thus, ironically, they were unable to get real advantage out of its use either.

Unable to force any key group to do America’s bidding, the US administration must use influence and persuasion. But it is playing to a very diverse gallery. It needs to please several different opinion groups that are internally diverse and under contradictory pressures. There are the Arab political leaders and then there is public opinion in Arab states, which is often more militantly anti-Israel and anti-American than the political establishment; then there is Israel, where public opinion still supports the two-state solution but the government does not; there are the Palestinians; and there is Iran, with elections the week after Obama’s speech and with everybody wondering whether the outcome will confirm or modify the uncompromising position-taking of President Ahmedinejad.

Fully pleasing all them even for part of the time is simply not on; the aim has to be to please the important ones just enough and for enough of the time. If Obama can get the approval of the mainstream of the Arab League without too badly alienating potential outliers like Syria, and if at the same time he can get a reaction from the Israeli government that is no more negative than a grudging, foot-dragging acquiescence for the moment, such that even to Iranian but especially to Arab ears a likely dissenting reaction from Iran sounds harshly dissonant, the militant noises that many Palestinians will make will be just noises because they will recognise, like everyone else, that the game is on.

Until now, getting the balance right between all these competing needs and messages has eluded successive US administrations and envoys, other governments and their diplomats, not to mention the UN. What one party applauds, the next excoriates and a third finds banal and uninteresting.

There have already been some efforts to soften opinion up and the delicacy of the operation was clear in Washington two weeks back as Obama called for an end to the expansion of settlements and Israeli prime Minister Netanyahu ducked and dived while he was there, and then when he got back home declared that he would not order a halt to “natural expansion” (population growth through births and marriages rather than through new waves of immigration to the occupied territory).

And beyond all these constituencies, Obama’s room for manoeuvre is ultimately going to be defined by his domestic base – how things are seen and who supports what back home in the US. Some observers see signs that opinion in the US is shifting, towards greater impatience with Israel’s intransigence, towards a greater willingness to acknowledge the injustice done to Palestinians over decades, towards recognising that the settlements are illegal under international law and that permanent Israeli occupation of the West Bank  is unacceptable by any standards, and towards a reduced willingness to believe that the horrors of the Jewish holocaust in Europe in the 1940s explain or justify actions undertaken by the Israeli state two generations later.

Even if these shifts are real, even if they put down roots and change permanently the weight and substance of the Israel issue in US politics, still the job of getting peace in Israel-Palestine is enormous. But for Obama to be able to articulate and implement a new approach to the region, he needs opinion to be shifting in these sorts of ways back home. That is actually where the renewal of US attempts to support an Israel-Palestine peace process must begin. So his speech in Cairo on 4 June will find its proper audience in the US as much as in the Middle East.

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