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On the Record

What Obama Doesn’t Understand About Israel and the Middle East

Martin S. Indyk and Nahum Barnea

Following is an interview with Martin Indyk by Nahum Barnea, writing for Yediot Ahronoth.  

There are no wounds as bad as those inflicted by one who loves you: their hurt is accurate. Their pain burns. In the midst of the election campaign in the US, a comprehensive book on the achievements and failures of the administration’‎s foreign policy was published this month (Bending History: Barack Obama’s Foreign Policy). The Middle Eastern chapters were written by Martin Indyk, who served twice as US ambassador to Israel and was one of the senior members of the peace process team. Four years ago, he supported Hillary Clinton. After she lost the Democratic Party’‎s primary elections, he enlisted in Obama’‎s election campaign. He praised him highly before audiences of Jewish Americans and Israelis.

‎Not this time. The chapter he wrote presents a long series of colossal mistakes by the US president, partly due to inexperience, mostly due to misunderstanding of the Israeli-Arab arena, unsuitable temperament and erroneous conceptions. Obama did not show any particular interest in regime change and democracy in the Arab world. Ironically, it’‎s the only area which has changed during his term in office.

‎Indyk, 61, serves today as the vice president of the Brookings Institution, one of the most important political think tanks in the US. His opponents will say that he is angry at Obama for not appointing him to a position in his administration. It seems he is much angrier at the missed opportunity. Obama received the Nobel Peace Prize, but he didn’‎t bring peace.

‎The necessary conclusion from reading the chapters you wrote, I told him, is to go and vote for Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate.”That’‎s worth a conversation,” ‎he said. Indyk visited Israel this week. On Wednesday, we sat on the balcony of the King David Hotel in Jerusalem and searched for the guilty parties together.

“‎Obama was a president of epic proportions from day one,” ‎Indyk began. “You cannot expect less from a first African-American president. From his first day in the White House, he put the Middle East at the top of his political agenda. Unfortunately for him, his personal involvement only made things worse.”

“‎The vision he presented was great, the promise huge. But his cold, analytical and aloof attitude didn’‎t suit the Middle Eastern climate. Middle Eastern leaders, Israelis and Arabs alike, rely on the personal relations they develop with the president. Obama doesn’‎t develop personal relationships. It’‎s his character.”

‎There is no argument that regarding the Arab-Israeli conflict, Obama’‎s first term of office has been a complete failure, I said. He promised to bring peace, but couldn’‎t renew the negotiations that took place on a regular basis during the Bush era. The Arab world didn’‎t believe him. The Israelis didn’‎t trust him. The question is how the responsibility is divided between the parties, how much Obama is responsible for and how much Netanyahu and Abu Mazen are responsible or perhaps the changes in the Arab world.

“‎In my experience,” ‎he said, “it takes three to tango in the Middle East—‎an Israeli leader and an Arab leader who are ready to take risks and an American president who is willing to invest his time and prestige to convince them that he will support them if they take the risks. There was no such willingness, neither Netanyahu nor Abu Mazen has it. There is plenty of blame to go around.”

Authors

‎How was Obama’‎s approach different from that of presidents Clinton and Bush, I asked.

“‎Clinton sought to convince the Israelis he was one of them, that he understood them and felt like them. At the same time, he sought to convince the Arabs that he was taking solving their problems seriously.”

“‎Obama adopted an opposite approach. He wouldn’‎t be Clinton, he wouldn’‎t be Bush. Bush, Obama said, was close to Israel. That didn’‎t help America and didn’‎t help Israel: Israel didn’‎t get the peace it so needed, and America’‎s relations with the Arab world were ruined. I will take another path.”

“‎He didn’‎t understand the Arabs. As far as the conflict is concerned, the Arabs don’‎t believe the US is on their side. Its alliance is with Israel. They expect the president to extract concessions from Israel, due to his close relations with it.”

“‎He didn’‎t understand the Israelis either. He gave Israel aid and security cooperation at an extent and depth hitherto unknown in previous administrations. Netanyahu and Barak admit that. He didn’‎t understand that the Israelis need sympathy, an embrace. The moment he made them feel he didn’‎t care, that his heart was not with them, he lost the ability to affect public opinion. And the moment he lost the public opinion support, he lost the government. Netanyahu understood it: when he confronted President Clinton, in his first term of office, he lost ground in the polls; when he confronted Obama, he soared.”

On a High Horse

‎The turning point was Obama’‎s speech at Cairo University in June 2009. I was there. After the speech, I spoke to Obama’‎s close advisers, Ram Emanuel and David Axelrod. I told them that the Israelis took the speech badly. The comparison between the Holocaust and Palestinian suffering infuriated them. The fact that Obama chose to speak in Cairo but not visit Jerusalem hurt their honor.

‎The two looked at each other in silence, as if to say, we knew it would happen, we warned him but he refused to listen. As time passed, the fact that Obama wrote the speech himself, against the advice of all his advisers, was made public.

“‎Before Cairo came Riyadh,” ‎said Indyk. “Obama demanded that Netanyahu freeze settlement construction. Netanyahu said, if Saudi Arabia gives something, it would help. Obama decided to land in Riyadh on the way to Cairo. The Saudis would agree to take in a number of Yemenite prisoners detained in Guantanamo; they would make a public goodwill gesture to Israel to help Obama secure a freeze on settlements. The meeting was not prepared properly. To his dismay, King Abdullah responded negatively to both requests.

“‎Morocco, Qatar and the Gulf emirates that were willing to respond with goodwill gestures for an Israeli decision to freeze settlements, recanted after the Saudi refusal. Obama lost his ability to sway the Arabs. And then came the Cairo speech, and Obama lost his ability to sway the Israelis.”

“‎The demand to freeze the settlements was not new: pervious presidents had made it and in certain times the Israelis complied. Obama demanded that natural growth not be taken into consideration. It was a new demand. Then he gave George Mitchell plenipotentiary authority to negotiate a compromise [that would produce less than a complete settlement freeze]. In doing so, he put Abu Mazen in an impossible position: he couldn’‎t have agreed for less than what Obama had demanded. Obama, Abu Mazen complained, put me on a high horse. I have no way to get off it.”

“‎That is how Obama operates. First, he sets a far-reaching goal. Then he looks for a compromise. At the end, no side is pleased.”

‎The same dynamic was in action when the Palestinians sought to become full members of the UN. An Obama speech led them to believe American would support this step, but when Abu Mazen went to the UN, the Americans [said they would] cast a veto.

‎Middle East governments, I said, took Obama’‎s betrayal of Mubarak harshly.

“‎It was due to Obama’‎s standoffish attitude,” ‎said Indyk, “‎his aloofness. When the revolution in Tunisia took place, he realized it was an important development, and that it was important that the US be on the right side of history. I think his judgment was correct—‎Mubarak didn’‎t have a chance of surviving. But the way he did it, humiliated an ally. He signaled to every Middle Eastern leader that if he gets in trouble with his people, he will be alone.

“‎In Bahrain he did otherwise. He learned his lesson. Besides, the Saudi King told him that if he acted in Bahrain as he had done with Mubarak, Saudi Arabia would sever the relations with the US.”

‎In Libya, I said, he preferred to lead from behind.

“‎The decision was correct,” ‎said Indyk, “‎the wording was miserable. In addition, the Russians and the Chinese claimed that America had led them astray in the Security Council. They refused to cooperate with the US on Syria.”

‎Do you intend to vote for Romney, I asked.

‎Indyk laughed. “‎You are distorting the message,” ‎he said. “‎I will vote for Obama. Why? Because there are other issues aside from the Middle East; because his heart is in the right place; because I hope that if he has another chance to advance the peace, he will do it another way.”

More than You Expected

‎Will Obama attack Iran, I asked.

“‎You can’‎t rule it out,” ‎said Indyk. “‎In my opinion, the chances of Obama ordering a military strike are greater than the chances of Romney doing so. Obama believes he has a mission: he wants to create a world order led by the US and non-proliferation is critical to that. Romney has no such ambitions.”

‎But you convinced me that there is a huge gap between Obama’‎s rhetoric and actions, I said. You convinced me that after ten years and two wars, that American public opinion isn’‎t prepared to open another front in the Middle East.

“‎You are making an unfair comparison,” ‎he said. “‎On the Iranian issue, it is not about an abstract vision but rather about policy. Obama is convinced that an Iranian bomb would set off a number arms race in the Middle East that would bring down the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty. It’‎s true that the American public opinion wouldn’‎t view military action favorably. That is why Obama will order it—‎if he does—‎after the elections.”

‎Netanyahu and Barak don’‎t believe in negotiations with Iran, I said.

“‎The Israeli response must be skeptical, regardless of what exactly is agreed upon there,” ‎he says. “‎When others are negotiating in your stead, you have every reason to suspect you are being sold out.”

“‎If, in the end, the Iranians agree to transfer the enriched uranium to another country and dismantle the military facility, it will be more than you expected. You will have no choice but to declare a victory and return home—‎to negotiations with the Palestinians.” […]

Reprinted by permission of the publisher.

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