The Obama Presidency
Examining the Image of the United States in the Arab World and the Relationship with Israel During the Obama Administration
Determined to improve U.S. relations in the Arab world while maintaining the strong US-Israeli dynamic, President Obama faced the challenge of a very delicate dance between these two often-divergent interests. Believing U.S. interests were at play in improving its image in the region, he began a heavy outreach campaign during the early days of his presidency by making numerous speeches and visits to the Middle East. At the same time, he had to maintain US-Israeli relations despite glaring tensions with its leaders while also appealing to domestic support for Israel. On top of this already challenging “bilateral” agenda, as is the case with most controversial topics, emotions run high and there seems to be a conflicting and passionate sentiment on virtually every aspect of relations with both Israel and the Middle East.
President Obama made appeals on the visionary grounds of cooperative action, mutual interests, and the need to overcome distrust. His rhetoric created the expectation that the problem of anger towards U.S. policies in the region would dissolve.47 However, as consistent polling in the Arab world denotes, U.S. image has not made an ounce of improvement over the past few years; although some credit has been given for Obama’s efforts, the polls do not lie: U.S. favorability has remained stagnant. Before becoming one of John Kerry’s U.S. envoy to the Middle East during the 2013-2014 Israel-Palestinian peace negotiations, Martin Indyk pointed out the inevitable tension between Obama’s visionary rhetoric and pragmatic approach. 48 Two years later, the gap between promise and delivery is painfully palpable.
The United States’ relationship with Israel, although strained and replete with differing national interests, is still a source of U.S. disapproval in the Middle East. The two countries may assign different degrees of importance to certain matters- each is, after all, its own sovereign state- but there are political and moral ties between the two that transcend sources of strain. Although there has been a shift in congressional attitudes for Israel towards more traditional party lines, it is still beneficial and low-cost for members of Congress to support it. The exigency of solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict seems to have simmered as the U.S. focuses its efforts on forging a coalition to combat the Islamic State’s rising control; only time will tell when or if this will change.
Implications for the Future
Although President Obama has vocally expressed criticism and disapproval for many of Israel’s policies- especially those regarding settlements- over the past few years, the Arab world still does not view the US as even-handed in its approach to relations. This warrants some unsettling questions: At what costto US-Israeli relations would a favorable U.S. image in the Middle East come? Can the US maintain its “special relationship” with Israel whilst improving relations with the Arab world?
In other words, can it have the best of both worlds? There are, of course, the criticswho argue we must put real pressure on Israel to expedite the peace process through decreased monetary aid; what they do not acknowledge, however, is the necessity of our security aid to Israel. Israel has a solid defense system and a vibrant economy with or without U.S. aid, but systems such as the Iron Dome provide crucial protection to Israeli civilians. Headlines do not often mention the barrage of rocket fireinto Israel from Gaza and the level it disrupts everyday life for Israelis living near the border.
The keyto the Middle East is quite obvious: The unresolved Arab-Israeli conflict. Although this chapter does not analyze every aspect of the peace process during the Obama administration, Secretary of State John Kerry pushed hard to bring both parties to agree to a solution; as Martin Indyk, a major U.S. player in the 2013-2014 negotiations noted,
We definitely tested the proposition that American involvement, creativity, high-level engagement with the leaders, intensive negotiations—all of the things the U.S. can bring to the table—could achieve peace (…) And it wasn't enough.49
Where do we go from here? In his 2014 Speech to the U.N. General Assembly, Barack Obama stressed the importance of leadership and stressed the U.S. would “never give up the pursuit of peace.”50 What he did not offer, however, were options for a new way forward. Could Netanyahu’s new paradigm- a broad coalition of moderate Arab states whose partnership will bring peace to the region-help pave the way for a lasting, sustainable solution? President Obama did, after all, stress the importance of partnership in his Cairo speech.
Although the prospect of continued direct negotiations appears dismal, statehood and peace cannot be achieved unilaterally or through violence; such actions would delegitimize the need for negotiations. When Israel withdrew from the Gaza Strip in 2005, it left a power vacuum that allowed Hamas, an organization dedicated to the destruction of Israel, to seep into the cracks and assume political control.
The unprovoked rocket fire into Israel during the summer of 2014 is evidence that true peace cannot be achieved with hostile groups in control, and the more recent attacks on a Jerusalem synagogue give further evidence of the constant security threats Israel faces. Unfortunately, such actions also give credence to Harvard professor Alan Dershowitz’s claim that “anti-Zionism is morphing into anti-Semitism.” In a region replete with uncertainty, one thing is clear: A new archetype is imperative if the U.S. wants to maintain healthy relations with both pieces of the puzzle.
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1.) Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President in Celebration of Nowruz,” March 9, 2009, www.whitehouse.gov.
2.) Barack Obama, “Text: Obama’s Speech in Cairo,” Speech, The New York Times, June 4, 2009, www.nytimes.com.
3.) Barack Obama, op cit.
4.) Barack Obama, op cit.
5.) Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama to the Turkish Parliament,” Speech, April 6, 2009, www.whitehouse.gov.
6.) Barack Obama, ibid.
7.) Martin Indyk, op cit., pp. 119.
8.) Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama to the People of Israel,” Speech, March 2013
9.) Barack Obama, “President Obama at the 2011 AIPAC Policy Conference,” Speech, Walter E. Washington Convention Center, Washington, DC, May 22, 2011.
10.) Dov Waxman, “The Real Problem in U.S.-Israeli Relations,” The Washington Quarterly 35 no. 2 (Spring 2012): pp. 71-87, Center for Strategic International Studies.
11.) JPost.com staff, “Full Text of PM Binyamin Netanyahu’s Speech to US Congress,” The Jerusalem Post. May 24, 2011. http://www.jpost.com/.
12.) Benjamin Netanyahu, “Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Speech at the United Nations General Assembly,” The Prime Minister’s Office, September 29, 2014. http://www.un.org/en/ga/69/meetings/gadebate/pdf/IL_en.pdf.
13.) Barack Obama, “Remarks by President Obama in Address to the United Nations General Assembly,” Speech, United Nations General Assembly Hall, New York City, New York, September 24, 2014, http://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2014/09/24/remarks-president-obama-address-united-nations-general-assembly.
14.) Matt Spetalnick, “Amid differences, Israel's Netanyahu to seek reassurances from Obama on Iran,” October 1, 2014, www.reuters.com.
15.) “Remarks by President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu of Israel,” March 5, 2012
16.) Jay Solomon and Carol E. Lee “Obama Wrote Secret Letter to Khameini About Fighting Islamic State,” The Wall Street Journal
17.) Barack Obama, op cit.
18.) “Is Peace Possible?” The Arab American Institute, 2012, http://www.aaiusa.org/reports/is-peace-possible.
19.) Benjamin Netanyahu, “Full text of Netanyahu’s foreign policy speech at Bar Ilan,” Haaretz, Speech, June 14, 2009, www.haaretz.com.
20.) Benjamin Netanyahu, op cit.
21.) “Is Peace Possible?” op cit.
22.) Barack Obama, “Remarks by the President on the Middle East and North Africa,” Speech, May 19, 2011, www.whitehouse.gov.
23.) Barack Obama, ibid.
24.) David Rhode, “How John Kerry Could End Up Outdoing Hillary Clinton,” The Atlantic, Noveber 20, 2013. http://www.theatlantic.com.
25.) Yale Law School: The Avalon Project, “Hamas Covenant 1988,” http://avalon.law.yale.edu /20th_century/ hamas.asp.
26.) John B. Judis, “Ending the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is No Longer a Vital American Interest,” The New Republic, August 10, 2014, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/119022/2014-gaza-war-why-obama-and-kerry-have-failed-end-it.
27.) Peter Beinart, "Why Obama Will Ignore Israel," Newsweek, December 17, 2012: 22, Biography in Context.
28.) David Rhode, op cit.
29.) Nahum Barnea, “Inside the Talks’ Failure: US Officials Open Up,” Ynet Magazine, May 5, 2014, http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4515821,00.html.
30.) Barack Obama, op cit.
31.) Dov Waxman, “The Real Problem in U.S.-Israeli Relations,” The Washington Quarterly 35 no. 2 (Spring 2012): pp. 77, Center for Strategic International Studies.
32.) John B. Judis, “Ending the Israeli-Palestinian Conflict is No Longer a Vital US Interest,” The New Republic.
33.) Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon, “How the Israel-Palestine Peace Deal Died,” New Republic, www.newrepublic.com.
34.) “Our Mission,” AIPAC, http://www.aipac.org/about/mission.
35.) Connie Bruck, “Friends of Israel,” The New Yorker, September 1, 2014 issue, www.newyorker.com.
36.) Connie Bruck, ibib.
37.) Barack Obama, “President Obama at 2011 AIPAC Policy Conference,” Speech, May 22, 2011.
38.) Barack Obama, ibib.
39.) Amnon Cavari and Elan Nyer, “From Bipartisanship to Dysergia: Trends in Congressional Actions Toward Israel,” pp. 20.
40.) Amnon Cavari and Elan Nyer, ibib, pp. 20.
41.) Arab American Institute, “Arab Attitudes: 2011”
42.) Dov Waxman, op cit., pp. 73.
43.) “Despite Their Wide Differences, Many Israelis and Palestinians Want Bigger Role for Obama in Resolving Conflict.” Pew Research Global Attitudes Project: May 09, 2013, http://ww.pewglobal.org.
44.) “Presidential Approval Ratings—Barack Obama,” Gallup, http://www.gallup.com/poll/.
45.) Pew Research Global Attitudes Project, op cit.
46.) “Five Years After the Cairo Speech: How Arabs View President Obama and America,” The Arab American Institute, 2014, http://www.aaiusa.org/.
47.) Jim Lobe, “US Standing Plunges in the Arab World”
48.) Martin Indyk, op cit., pp. 139.
49.) Ben Birnbaum and Amir Tibon, op cit.
50.) Barack Obama, op cit.