Commentary Magazine


Obama’s Real Israel Problem

Last week, the blogosphere hotly debated Barack Obama’s stance on Israel. Here at contentions, Noah Pollak argued that Obama’s advisory staff suggests an unfavorable disposition towards Jerusalem, while I noted that Obama’s strongly pro-Israel statements on the campaign trail contrasted with his previous call for an “even-handed approach” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Over at The American Prospect, however, Matthew Duss intimated that these concerns were petty—“Good heavens, ‘an even-handed approach’? What’s next, wearing a keffiyeh?” The Atlantic’s Matthew Yglesias agreed.

Unfortunately, Duss and Yglesias declined to address criticisms of Obama’s apparent Israeli-Palestinian flip-flopping—which was first exposed by a prominent pro-Palestinian activist—substantively. But, with the Patriots-Giants Super Bowl affording downtrodden Jets fans ample time to mull, I’ve decided that Duss and Yglesias are right: our focus on the various forces shaping Obama’s outlook and statements on Israel is petty, though not for their condescending reasons.

Consider the following: over the next four-to-eight years, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is likely to be the least dynamic feature of Middle Eastern politics and, by extension, U.S. policy in the Middle East. Firmly in control of Gaza, Hamas is bound to remain an actively destabilizing force in Palestinian politics for years to come. Fatah—the U.S.’s great hope for Palestinian moderation post-Arafat—remains weak and unpopular, and its decline will accelerate once Abbas leaves office in 2009. Meanwhile, Israel’s leadership still sees no contradiction between pursuing peace and expanding settlements, further lacking the vision to transform short-term military successes against terrorism into long-term political solutions.

Indeed, the Israeli-Palestinian sphere will remain unambiguously hopeless for years to come. It is thus hard to imagine Obama adopting Samantha Power’s advice that pumping billions of dollars into a nascent Palestinian state is a panacea. Indeed, focusing on Obama’s Israel outlook merely distracts from his potential approach to far more dynamic—and therefore critical—areas of Middle Eastern politics.

For example, consider U.S. public diplomacy—the area in which Obama has the greatest potential to truly affect change. As LinkTV reports, “many Arabs believe that Obama’s ethnicity and background give him a kinder understanding of Third World countries.” I can vouch for these sentiments: when Obama announced his candidacy early last year, his childhood years in Indonesia and Islamic middle name enthused my classmates at the American University in Cairo, who were otherwise strictly critical of American politics and policy. These students represent the foremost demographic that U.S. public diplomacy must attract if it is to succeed: they are well educated, fluent in English, exposed to American culture, and relatively liberal in their social outlooks.

Yet Obama’s policy proposals would immediately undermine his biographical advantages with this key Arab constituency. After all, Obama has repeatedly called for dialogue with Iran and a conference with the leaders of Islamic states—initiatives that would sacrifice these young moderates to the region’s most illiberal forces. In Iran, Obama’s overture would inflict double damage: it would represent official U.S. acceptance of the hostage-taking Revolutionary regime, while debunking public sentiment that views Iran’s isolation as too steep a price for Ahmadinejad’s vitriolic rhetoric. Ultimately, the U.S. would be more in bed with Middle Eastern authoritarians than ever before, acquiescing to Iranian ascendancy in the process.

In short, if Barack Obama truly views himself as an “agent of change,” then scrutinizing his views on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict—the least dynamic of all Middle Eastern policy areas—is wasteful. Rather, it is his approach on Iran, Arab democracy, and U.S. public diplomacy—fluctuating issues that will demand Obama’s immediate attention should he assume office—that require the deepest evaluation.

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