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Lowered US Profile

Yoram Ettinger Photo: Gabi Menashe
Yoram Ettinger Photo: Gabi Menashe
 
 

Obama has other priorities

President’s State of Union address shows Mideast conflict not a top priority

Yoram Ettinger
Published: 01.30.10, 15:25 / Israel Opinion

The exclusion of the Arab-Israeli conflict from President Obama's 2010 State of the Union Address reflects a US order of priorities and, possibly, a concern that mediation in the Arab-Israeli conflict does not advance – but undermines – Obama's domestic standing. In fact, Jerusalem should impress upon the US to reduce its mediation profile, minimize tension between Israel and the American broker, while enhancing strategic cooperation between Israel and its American ally.

 

Obama's address focused on the US economy in general, and on the 26 year record-unemployment and the 65 year record-budget deficit, in particular. Thus, Obama highlighted a national order of priorities, underlining domestic issues, which preoccupy the public mind and tend to determine the fate of an American president and his political party for success or oblivion. Therefore, the global agenda – and even counterterrorism – were marginalized by Obama's address.

 

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Washington's international agenda does not consider the Arab-Israeli conflict to be a top priority. Obama devoted the few minutes allotted to the international arena to his commitments to evacuate Iraq, to reinforce troops in Afghanistan, to constrain the North Korean nuclear threat, to prevent Iran's nuclearization, to reduce the nuclear arms race, to combat terrorism, to sustain engagement with rivals and enemies and to continue seeking multilateralism in general and with Muslims in particular. The avoidance of any reference to the Arab-Israeli conflict was intentional.

 

President Obama's involvement with the Arab-Israeli conflict has diverted his attention from issues which are much more important to vital US interests. The pressure exerted on Israel has eroded Obama's support among the American people, which have systematically accorded Israel high levels of support (66%-70%), compared with Obama's free fall in public opinion polls (from 65% in January, 2009 to 47% in January, 2010).

 

Obama's pressure on Israel has also complicated his relations with friends of Israel on Capitol Hill, whose support is critical to Obama's legislative agenda. He realized Israel's solid support on the Hill when 334 House Members (76% of the House of Representatives) co-singed a letter condemning the "Goldstone Report," compared with only 57 Members (13%) co-signing a letter calling "to lift the closure on Gaza." In fact, President Clinton's precedent suggests that even a live-telecast of Clinton's participation in signing the Israel-Jordan peace treaty – a week before the November 1994 election – was overshadowed by domestic US politics, which devastated the Democratic Party in the mid-term election.

 

Obama’s worldview exacerbates matters

A lowered US profile in mediating the Arab-Israeli conflict would enhance US-Israel relations and the respective interests of both countries. The more involved the US is as a broker, the less involved it is as a unique ally of the Jewish State. The more preoccupied the US is with mediation, the more it is inclined to be swept into disagreements and finger-pointing matches with Israel. The more entangled the US is in attempts to bridge Israeli-Arab gaps, the more attention is paid to that which causes separation between the US and Israel, rather than that which bonds them.

 

These observations are accentuated by the lead mediation role played by the State Department – which opposed the establishment of Israel and systematically supports the Arab position – and the CIA and the National Security Council, which tend to embrace Foggy Bottom's position on the Arab-Israeli conflict.

 

President Obama's worldview has exacerbated matters, clarifying the direction of US mediation: "Islam has always been part of the American story;" Israel is not a strategic asset and possibly a liability; Israel belongs to the exploiting West and the Arabs belong to the exploited Third World; engagement and not confrontation with rogue regimes; terrorism is primarily a law enforcement challenge; there is no Islamic terrorism, but Taliban and al-Qaeda terrorism; the UN and Europe are key quarterbacks of international relations; the resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict consists of a withdrawal to the 1949 and 1967 ceasefire lines, repartitioning of Jerusalem, uprooting of Jewish settlements, negotiating the return of the 1948 Arab refugees and possibly exchanging land.

 

The Arab-Israeli conflict is not the axis of US-Israel relations, which are based on a much more solid foundation of shared values, joint interests and mutual threats. Therefore, the unbridgeable US-Israel gap over the Secretary of State Rogers' 1970 peace plan could not derail the substantial upgrading of strategic US-Israel cooperation, due to Israel's deterrence of a pro-Soviet Syrian invasion of pro-US Jordan.

 

Furthermore, the Bush-Baker hostility toward the Jewish State and the severe US-Israel tension over the first Intifada, the Reagan Peace Plan and the First Lebanon War could not stop a series of US-Israel memoranda of strategic understanding and the legislation of a substantially expanded US-Israel strategic cooperation, which were derived from Israel's unique contribution to the US posture of deterrence and its battle against terrorism and ballistic missiles.

 

The Middle East is a constant source of violently unpredictable challenges, which threaten vital US and Israeli interests. In order to effectively face such critical developments, it behooves the US and the Jewish state to maximize the utility of their mutually beneficial strategic common denominator and minimize involvement – such as US mediation in the Arab-Israeli conflict – which erodes the unique bonds between the two countries.

 

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