The Obama Presidency
Examining the Image of the United States in the Arab World and the Relationship with Israel During the Obama Administration
Many U.S. Jews and Israelis saw President Obama’s outreach to the Arab world as an attempt to distance himself from Israel in order to curry favor with the Arabs.7 After numerous trips and speeches delivered across the Arab world, Obama had yet to visit Jerusalem or deliver a single interview to an Israeli news station; he did not do so until March 2013. Fully aware of the strong domestic support for Israel, he adeptly played the political game and gave the occasional speech emphasizing the “unbreakable bond” between the two countries.
Aside from his primary objective of improving U.S. relations in the Arab and Muslim world, it is no secret that Barack Obama lacks the emotional investment of his predecessors with regards to Israel. Although he expresses “obligatory” remarks about his steadfast commitment to Israel and its security, his support for Israel is much more calculated and logical than Presidents Clinton or Bush, the former who has enjoyed the most favorable rating in the Arab world of the three U.S. leaders. Although President Obama has not warmly embraced Israel, he has not wavered in meeting its security requirements. The following subsets view U.S.-Israeli relations throughout the Obama administration through a macro lens that focuses on the very real differences between the two countries’ leaders and their approaches to major sources of tension in the region: Iran and the Arab-Israeli conflict.
Netanyahu v. Obama?
Tensions between Obama and Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu- most evidenced in their disagreements over Israeli settlements- are well documented and often the subject of satirical political commentary. President Obama himself has addressed and poked fun at his often-tumultuous “friendship” with Netanyahu; in his first speech to the Israeli people in Jerusalem, he told the audience, “But I want to clear something up just so you know -- any drama between me and my friend, Bibi, over the years was just a plot to create material for Eretz Nehederet. That’s the only thing that was going on. We just wanted to make sure the writers had good material.”8 At an AIPAC policy conference in 2011, he remarked, “Friends talk honestly and openly with one another.”9
However lightly the leaders attempt to publicly address their differences, their rifts extend beyond mere personal differences; they pale in comparison to the theoretical ones, and extend into the realm of fundamentally different. Additionally, the U.S. and Israel have different strategic interests. Although both share common interests, including opposition to Iran’s nuclear program, support for pro-Western regimes, stopping Islamist-inspired terrorism, achieving a peaceful resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and “normalization” between the Arab world and Israel, it poses a considerable challenge and jeopardizes many aspects of the relationship when the degree of precedence assigned to each one differs.10
Their divergent approaches to regional issues have been on full display in their various “dueling” speeches delivered in close proximity of another. The first and most notable was in May 2011, when President Obama delivered his speech on the Middle East and North Africa and declared that borders should be based on the 1967 lines; 3 days later, Netanyahu delivered a fiery address to a joint session of Congress, where he deemed these lines “indefensible” and stressed the importance of taking into account demographic realities.11
President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu have vastly different approaches to the Iranian nuclear issue. While both sides agree that containment of its program is absolutely necessary, they have starkly opposing views on ways to address it. The Obama administration is actively seeking a diplomatic agreement- despite bleak projections for an agreement amidst a recent deadline extension- while Israel views any Iranian nuclear activity as a fundamental threat to its security and existence.
One of the starkest examples of this difference is evident when examining each leader’s September 2014 speech to the UN General Assembly, another example of their “dueling” speeches. Prime Minister Netanyahu stressed the urgency of containing the threat:
The Nazis believed in a master race. The militant Islamists believe in a master faith (…) The question before us is whether militant Islam will have the power to realize its unbridled ambitions. There is one place where that could soon happen: The Islamic State of Iran. For 35 years, Iran has relentlessly pursued the global mission which was set forth by its founding ruler, Ayatollah Khomeini, in these words: ‘We will export our revolution to the entire world. Until they cry, "There is no God but Allah" will echo throughout the world over.
Meanwhile, President Obama projected, “America is pursuing a diplomatic resolution to the Iranian nuclear issue, as part of our commitment to stop the spread of nuclear weapons and pursue the peace and security of a world without them. And this can only take place if Iran seizes this historic opportunity”13
This dichotomy was also on display in the aftermath of the Gaza War, when Prime Minister Netanyahu met with President Obama for the first time since the collapse of U.S.-led peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority. The top priority for the U.S., according to an official, was addressing the “current relations between Israel and the Palestinians, including the situation in Gaza.” Netanyahu, on the other hand, put Iran at the top of the agenda.14 The emphasis on Iran fits the narrative of Israel’s perceived existential threat if Iran is allowed to obtain nuclear capabilities. Obama has made it clear that it seeks diplomatic resolutions and that “all options are on the table.” 15 Netanyahu would certainly disapprove of President Obama’s recently surfaced letter to Ayatollah Khamenei with regards to mutual U.S.-Iranian interests in fighting the Islamic State militants and the need to press on with nuclear talks, as he views any cooperative effort on Iran’s part as a mere smokescreen that veils its hidden agenda.16
U.S. Involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian Peace Process
The unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict has long been viewed as the holy grail of improved U.S. image in the Middle East; as mentioned earlier, President Obama highlighted “the situation between Israelis, Palestinians, and the Arab world” as a source of great tension in his Cairo speech.17 Due to the historical nature of and years of background to this divisive issue, this chapter does not seek to address the full extent of the peace process but rather to point out a few key developments over the past 6 years.
Both Israelis and Palestinians still view a two-state solution as the only viable solution to the conflict; they both desire distinct and separate states.18 Notwithstanding historical and religious ties to the land itself, the means and details of this end goal have long been the subject of intense controversy and disagreement. In 2009, Prime Minister Netanyahu made a “major foreign policy speech” to an Israeli audience just days after President Obama’s Cairo address that outlined major policy in the Arab world. In the speech, Netanyahu risked the support of his coalition government by explicitly outlining Israel’s support for a two-state solution, a refrain from building new settlements, as well as his appeal to Arab neighbors for their involvement in the process:
I appeal tonight to the leaders of the Arab countries and say: Let us meet. Let us talk about peace. Let us make peace. I am willing to meet at any time, at any place, in Damascus, in Riyadh, in Beirut, and in Jerusalem as well (…) I call upon the leaders of the Arab countries to join together with the Palestinians and with us to promote economic peace (…) I appeal to you, our Palestinian neighbors, and to the leadership of the Palestinian Authority. Let us begin peace negotiations immediately without prior conditions. Israel is committed to international agreements, and expects all sides to fulfill their obligations. I say to the Palestinians: We want to live with you in peace, quiet, and good neighborly relations. We want our children and your children to 'know war no more’ (…) The truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians. We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives. We do not want to force our flag and our culture on them. In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor's security and existence.
Netanyahu coupled the appeal with the insistence that the “fundamental condition for ending the conflict is the public, binding and sincere Palestinian recognition of Israel as the national homeland of the Jewish People.”20 In the same year, Netanyahu agreed to a 10-month settlement moratorium that showed increasing flexibility during the process. Although this is a reasonable demand, it poses considerable problems; according to a comprehensive 2012 survey of both Israelis and Palestinians, 89% of Israelis but only 36% of Palestinians support recognizing Israel as a Jewish state.21
Amidst the context of the Arab Spring in 2011, Obama made a speech detailing U.S. policy in the Middle East. The speech, like his previous ones, touched on the improved relations the U.S. was seeking with the Arab world based shared interests and respect:
A failure to change our approach threatens a deepening spiral of division between the United States and the Arab world. And that’s why, two years ago in Cairo, I began to broaden our engagement based upon mutual interests and mutual respect. I believed then -– and I believe now -– that we have a stake not just in the stability of nations, but in the self-determination of individuals. The status quo is not sustainable (…)
So we face a historic opportunity. We have the chance to show that America values the dignity of the street vendor in Tunisia more than the raw power of the dictator. There must be no doubt that the United States of America welcomes change that advances self-determination and opportunity. Yes, there will be perils that accompany this moment of promise. But after decades of accepting the world as it is in the region, we have a chance to pursue the world as it should be.
Acknowledging the intertwinement between U.S. relations with the Arab world and the lingering Arab-Israeli conflict, Obama also recognized that expectations of progress had gone largely unfulfilled. On the issue of borders, he remarked, “We believe the borders of Israel and Palestine should be based on the 1967 with mutually agreed swaps, so that secure and recognized borders are established for both states.”23 President Obama had already made waves in his 2009 Cairo speech when he denounced the legitimacy of continued Israeli settlements; this was the first time a U.S. president explicitly called for border delineation on these terms. The 1967 lines refer to those that existed before Israel gained control of the Gaza strip, the West Bank, the Sinai Peninsula, and the Golan Heights after an embarrassing defeat of Egypt and its neighboring Arab countries, in what is known as the Six-Day War. Obama did denounce any unilateral actions taken by the Palestinian Authority to achieve statehood without direct negotiations with Israel, but such statements paled in comparison to the waves created by his remarks on settlements.
By 2013, both President Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry agreed that time was dwindling and U.S. efforts to revive the peace negotiations should be stimulated before the Palestinian Authority (PA) again pushed unilaterally for statehood before the United Nations General Assembly. Obama had also allegedly expressed regret for his failure to visit Israel during his first term, so in March 2013, he visited Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan, and announced his intention to restart negotiations.24 When the U.S.-brokered peace talks between Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Netanyahu were rekindled in 2013, President Obama sidelined himself from the process and confided in a very eager Secretary of State John Kerry to take the reins, instead shifting his focus to the U.S. “pivot” to Asia.
Determined to weld an agreement between Netanyahu and President Abbas, Kerry pressed hard, scuttling numerous times between Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem and Abbas’ in Ramallah when the two leaders were not in direct meetings. The media today, more often than not, molds events to fit into existing narratives. The same holds true for Israel’s international image, as portrayed by the global media: Ruthless, land-stealing bullies who do not take into account the plight of Palestinian suffering and their pursuit of a sovereign state.Considering the contextof current regional atrocities- hundreds of thousands of peoplehave been killed in both Iraq and Syria over the past few years- Israel still manages to garner the condemnation of the entire world. It is worth mentioning that Netanyahu agreed to many Palestinian demands- including a series of prisoner releases- despite the opposition of his Likud coalition, yet Abbas and the Palestinian Authority still refused to “cave” and recognize the existence of Israel as a Jewish state. Frustrated by the stalemate of the process and disagreement with Netanyahu over borders, Abbas grew weary and towards the end of the talks rejected numerous plans put forth by Secretary Kerry.
Hamas and Fatah’s partnership announcement also put a major damper on the peace process; differences between President Obama’s approach to U.S.-Israeli relations were especially evident when he blatantly went against Israeli policy on the matter and recognized the new unity government in the spring of 2014. Given that the Hamas Charter of 1988 declares things such as “Israel will exist and will continue to exist until Islam will obliterate it, just as it obliterated others before it” and “There is no solution for the Palestinian question except through Jihad. Initiatives, proposals and international conferences are all a waste of time and vain endeavors,” there was veritable cause for Israeli concern.25 Additionally, at Gaza ceasefire talks on August 6, 20124, Obama endorsed Hamas’s central demand: removal of blockades, which only served to further dampen the mood between parties.26 The talks inevitably collapsed in April 2014.
Obama may have guided the negotiations behind the scenes, but his lack of direct involvement is still the source of much criticism. His absence during the process provokes a broad range of opinion that includes everything from a new approach of “benign neglect”27 and giving up out of frustration to support from figures such as Kerry, who insisted the“president and his staff fully supported the effort to try to jump-start talks.”28 In an interview given to an Israeli journalist after the talks’ collapse, unnamed U.S. officials involved in the process concurred that Obama’s physical presence would not have affected the process or outcome.
Although U.S. officials have publicly blamed both sides for the failure of the talks, it seems as if behind closed (interview) doors they point the finger at Israel. Considering the breadth and depth of Palestinian demands, why has the Palestinian Authority still refused to accept Israel as a sovereign Jewish state? Again, the U.S. envoy criticized the Israeli stipulation:
Israel made this into a huge deal - a position that wouldn't change under any circumstances. The Palestinians came to the conclusion that Israel was pulling a nasty trick on them. They suspected there was an effort to get from them approval of the Zionist narrative.
In his 2014 speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Prime Minister Netanyahu proposed his own version of a “historic opportunity” than the one Mr. Obama mentioned in his: The climate for Arab states to actively work together towards the same goals and dangers- militant Islamist movements such as ISIS- to transform relationships and create a productive partnership to promote a peaceful, prosperous Middle East. The benefits would be two-fold: President Obama’s respective speech to at the same policy convention again highlights the dichotomy between himself and Netanyahu. He made claims such as, “So long as I am President, we will stand up for the principle that Israelis, Palestinians, the region and the world will be more just and more safe with two states living side by side, in peace and security,” and that “Leadership will also be necessary to address the conflict (…) As bleak as the landscape appears, America will never give up the pursuit of peace,” yet neither shows intent to rekindle the peace negotiations nor acknowledges Netanyahu’s new paradigm.30
Although the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict is usually stressed from a U.S. strategic point of view, it is worth noting that in light of recent developments in the Middle East- including the rise of terrorist groups such as the Islamic State- there has been considerable debate regarding just how important the conflict is to U.S. interests. Some scholars, including Professor, Dov Waxman, argue that another fundamental disagreement between the U.S. and Israel lies in the perceived role the conflict plays in the broader political arena of the Middle East; in short, there exists a definite “linkage” between Arab-Israeli conflict and other issues of U.S. concern in Middle East. Israel, he argues, views the conflict as a consequence, not a cause, of the region’s problems. 31 On the other hand, in the context of the rise of terrorist groups such as ISIS who pose significant threats to the entire region- there are also those who argue that the urgency of ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not as directly tied to the spread of terrorism; the urgency to “solve” it simply is absent.32 In any case, perhaps Netanyahu’s remarks to John Kerry at a meeting in 2013 ring true: “No one understands Israel but Israel.”33Continued on Next Page »