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Obama and the Mideast, a Return to Clinton

 

23 November 2008

By Yisrael Ne'eman

Two months from now with the Obama Administration taking office one can expect a change in US Middle East policy, but much less drastic than many would expect. The president-elect is already shifting centrist and moving back to the Clinton years as will be noted by his advisors and candidates for cabinet positions. Hillary may even become secretary of state, but there will be one major difference, this is the world after 9/11. Any radical reappraisal of the Israeli-American relationship does not appear to be in the offering.

Barak Obama's first order of business will be the American and world economy, not Israel and the Palestinians (or Syrians). Like everyone else he wants to know where the bottom of the financial abyss lies (how many lost trillions?) so the federal government will be able to plan its massive bailouts, economic programs and in the end decide "who will live and who will die." To stimulate the world economy, oil prices must be held steady and kept low, meaning the Saudis must be in the loop in quite a bit of decision making.

The major foreign policy challenge will be in the Middle East but Israel will not take first place. A secure and phased withdrawal of American troops from Iraq over the next three years is and will continue to be once Obama takes office, the first priority. Winning the war against Al-Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan is next with the re-stabilization of Pakistan coming in a close third. Halting the Iranian nuclear program hovers over all the above and depending on developments can at any time be catapulted into the #1 slot.

As with all US administrations foreign policy will revolve around strengthening the nation state players. In particular the Arab secular states need to be reinforced in their battle against the Islamists as represented by Al-Qaeda, the Moslem Brotherhood and the Khomeinists. The situation is much more critical now than it was in the 1990s. Egypt, Jordan and possibly even Syria are being subjected to the Moslem Brotherhood threat more than anyone realizes. The Fatah led Palestinian Authority which supposedly rules in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) would collapse entirely were it not for western aid and Israeli help in security matters.

Media access to the upcoming Israeli elections and the hype spawned as a result will put the Israel/Palestinian issue on the front pages despite the real priorities mentioned above. According to the most recent public opinion polls Benyamin Netanyahu and the Likud can be expected to win the February elections and will form either a right wing or right of center government.

Netanyahu should not be expected to form a right wing government but rather right of center. It may very well be back to the days of Ariel Sharon. True, Barak Obama is not George W. but if Bibi has matured in the past ten years he should be able to hold his administration together while lining up with the old/new American policies. In particular he can emphasize the 2003 Roadmap and April 2004 Bush-Sharon exchange of letters whereby Israel begins implementing a two-state solution with the Palestinians, accompanied by security guarantees.

Netanyahu will be expected to evacuate the army and Jewish settlements from the central mountain region of the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) to continue implementing these understandings. The security fence will continue its transformation into a political border (with possible minor changes) and the division of Jerusalem will be put on the table. Besides dealing with economics, Bibi wants to be remembered as a statesman and a peacemaker. He also knows which way the wind blows and realizes that all American administrations and Congress demand a two-state solution. He negotiated both the Hebron Agreement (1997) and Wye Accords (1998), relinquishing land to the Palestinians. The only real political opposition can be expected from the right wing Jewish Home party – AKA: warmed over members of the National Religious and National Union parties.

Many people both right and left, expect that Netanyahu and Obama will not necessarily get along. John McCain was seen as much more Israel friendly but Obama is taking the Clinton route, consulting centrist Democratic advisors and returning to the direction of the Clinton Outline (Dec. 2000). None of this can be viewed as anti-Israel.

Bibi can be expected to take his cue from Arik. When faced with the option of one state for two peoples or the two-state solution, he will opt for the latter. For sure he will demand Palestinian Authority security cooperation and American guarantees just as he did in the Hebron and Wye Accords. Does he trust the Palestinians? Probably not. But more importantly Bibi certainly has not forgotten that the right wing toppled his government over the issue of the Wye Accords, bringing Ehud Barak and Labor to power in 1999. Assuming his learning curve is anything than flat (or negative) he will begin with a more comfortable partner such as Kadima despite his lack of respect for Tzipy Livni and pick up where he left off. And if his starting line is an alliance with the Right he will either find himself with Kadima later on or in the opposition after the next election. Betting is that he is too bright to mortgage himself to the Right a second time.

And do not be surprised if he considers another disengagement, this time in parts of Judea and Samaria.