Obama and the Middle East: Not all Black or White



Obama and the Middle East: Not all Black or White


Prof. Sam Lehman-Wilzig

Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar, Brown University


In Israel, Barack Obama’s victory has once again raised the ever-present question: “Is it good for the Jews?” (or for Israelis in general). The answer: just like his racial lineage, there is no unambiguous answer – and not only because of the new President himself. The following is a list of considerations, not necessarily in order of importance, regarding the new Administration and the Middle East peace process.

1) Who will win the elections in Israel? As previous American administrations have learned to their chagrin or joy, without Israeli cooperation there is just so much that can be done to push the peace process forward. If Tzippi Livni manages to form a coalition after Feb. 10 then Obama’s election could be a watershed for the peace process (the reason: see paragraph 3 below) as he will have a very willing Israeli government that wants to continue the process already begun. On the other hand, if Netanyahu proves victorious it is very hard to see significant movement – and given the very serious domestic and foreign policy challenges that face Obama in the foreseeable future, he will certainly not waste political energy on a (temporarily) lost cause. One final point: Obama’s victory might – just might – influence the outcome of the Israeli election in Livni’s favor for two reasons. First, if America can vote for a Black President who has promised “to do things differently”, then Israelis may feel that they should do no less. Second, Israelis perceive America as their greatest friend and ally – and many do not wish to have serious tension between their country and Uncle Sam, something that will occur with Netanyahu at the helm (remember Bibi and Bill?).

2) Who will be the next Palestinian President? In case anyone has forgotten, it takes two to tango (in this case, perhaps three!). The identity of the next Palestinian leader (elections are scheduled for next year here too) will also be important. If it is the present Chairman Abbas, then the situation would be the mirror image of Netanyahu – someone who wants to sue for peace but is too weak to make any significant concessions. President Obama might be willing to offer several economic carrots to Abbas; however, the problem is not economic but rather of political courage and persuasiveness – would he be able to tell and persuade his people that true peace can only come if they give up the “Dream of Refugee Return”? The answer by all accounts is no. Other younger and more determined Palestinian leaders might be able – if they are willing. Here too Obama has to wait for the election outcome.

3) Does Obama have street credibility with the Arab world? The answer is obvious: more than any other entering President in recent memory. With a middle name of Hussein and his paternal connection to Islam (he is not  a Moslem by any stretch), he surely will be viewed as a more honest broker than any previous President. But won’t that cause him problems with the Israelis? Until Nov. 4 perhaps that was the case, but the minute he appointed the son of an Irgun fighter to be his White House Chief of Staff (the Israelis are truly agog at Rahm Benjamin), it will be hard for anyone in Israel to suspect Obama’s “motives” or believe in a “pro-Arab bias”. Thus, for the first time ever (yes, ever) all sides to the Israeli-Arab conflict can feel a measure of confidence that the American President is not out to “screw” this side or the other.

4) What about the Arab hot spots connected to Israel? Here the news is good again, but not for reasons of “ethnic solidarity”. Rather, it is a matter of Obama’s approach to international relations: first talk and then we’ll see… Without a doubt he will encourage Israel to continue negotiations with Syria, and the Syrians too will be less wary of dealing with Israel and an American administration that does not (publicly) call it part of the “axis of evil”. And if by some chance Israel can get a deal with Syria, they will get Lebanon in the bargain too. That leaves the Palestinians (see above), and most important of all: Iran…

5) Whither Iran? Once again, the answer is to be partly found in the election tea leaves – this time, the Iranian elections! If the present administration retakes office (including an ideological clone of the incumbent, if not the incumbent himself) then Obama’s promised discussions with the Iranians will be short. If somehow a more “moderate” President were to be chosen (and perhaps that may occur precisely because Obama is far less threatening of Iranian sovereignty), then there is an outside chance (repeat, outside chance) that Obama can diffuse the crisis. Moreover, if the world (read: Russia and China) concluded that Obama made a real effort to talk to the Iranians without condescension and came up empty, greater U.N. sanctions would be in the offing – and perhaps at that point the new administration might be willing to countenance even “sterner” measures.

In addition, indirectly Israel’s negotiations with Syria could also be influential here, for if by some half-miracle a peace treaty can be signed with Syria – one of whose conditions will be Syria’s real break with terrorist regimes (read: Iran) – then the Iranians might feel the diplomatic noose tightening and perhaps for the first time might seriously consider a negotiated settlement.

6) What will be the price of oil? If oil prices stay significantly depressed, and especially if they drop even more, Iran’s economy will be deeply in trouble (it’s already halfway there) – another incentive for possible serious negotiations regarding its nuclear program. What does Obama have to do with this? Any serious alternative energy program initiated by the Americans would have repercussions in the oil market, even if the actual impact on production and prices won’t be felt for years. The perception of eventual Middle East power decline cannot but move the Middle East power brokers to try and clear up their political and economic muddles.

           In short, Obama is a huge “Joker” thrown into a complex game of Middle East poker. It is his hand to play, but he will need a few other good cards to actually succeed.


Nov. 9, 2008

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