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Obama Legacy Watch

As Jennifer points out, Syria joined Libya at the Arab League summit this weekend in egging on the Palestinian Arabs to quit the peace process with Israel. There were many ominous references at the summit to the probable failure of the current peace process, but the League reached no unified resolution on a way ahead for the Palestinian question. Arab news outlets derided this lack of resolution as a missed opportunity to declare the peace process dead and take a harder line with Israel. But there was no question among observers that, as Al Jazeera proclaimed, “Israel dominated the summit.”

This isn’t surprising, of course, but in the larger context of regional dynamics, it’s a bad sign. With Iran supporting insurgencies in Yemen and Lebanon, establishing a military presence in the Red Sea, and nearing a nuclear breakout, the summit’s histrionic focus on housing construction in a part of Jerusalem that has never even been on the bargaining table has a somewhat demented air about it.

The League didn’t ignore Iran, however. On Saturday, Egypt’s Amr Moussa, the Arab League’s secretary-general, reiterated his call for a regional negotiating forum with Iran. Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan endorsed the Moussa proposal — which includes Turkey as a forum participant — with alacrity. Erdogan himself was present at the summit and made headlines with his official address on Sunday, in which he referred to Israel’s stance on Jerusalem as “madness.” He then pointedly appropriated a biblical allusion — “Jerusalem is the apple of the eye of each and every Muslim” — and pretty much put to rest any doubts about his partisan posture. (Not that there were many doubts remaining after his March 7 proclamation that Rachel’s Tomb and the Cave of the Patriarchs “were not and never will be Jewish sites, but Islamic sites.”)

Barack Obama’s legacy is beginning to emerge. An Al Jazeera editorial writer made this telling statement in a background article on the Arab summit on Friday: “Arab leaders often meet in order to follow U.S. dictates.” We in the U.S. don’t think that’s true, naturally, but the overstatement does get at the underlying truth that U.S. policy has for several decades set boundaries on what the Middle East’s various actors consider possible. In countering the Soviet Union, affirming Israel’s right to exist, containing Iran, and keeping the seaways open, American policy has set the conditions in which the nations of the region operated.

The irresolution of this weekend’s summit is an indication that the Arab League’s members aren’t sure yet what boundaries are implied by Obama’s policy. But after 14 months of it, Turkey’s overtly Islamist posture is hardening and its commitment to secularism is being dismantled. The Arab League is talking seriously about launching a negotiating forum with Iran, precisely because of the impotence of U.S. policy. And the League is pessimistic about the future of the peace process, unified on this point if on no other: that under current conditions, the Palestinians should not agree to rejoin sponsored talks of any kind.


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