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Obama gets serious on Middle East

CAN Barack Obama really bring peace to the Middle East?

In the past week Obama sent his Defence Secretary Robert Gates, National Security Adviser Jim Jones and Middle East envoys George Mitchell and Dennis Ross to Israel and other points in the Middle East. These visits may mark something of a turning point. They suggest Obama is moving beyond his role of psychotherapist to the Arab world and getting down to business.

I still don't think Obama will bring peace to the Middle East, but a few interesting things are going to happen in the next few months.

The Americans were notionally in Israel to discuss a freeze on Jewish settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. But they also discussed Iran and Syria. They took a friendly and engaging tone with Israel. They know they are not going to get a complete freeze on the settlements, especially in East Jerusalem. They may get a temporary freeze that starts after existing building work is completed.

But the Americans are coming to realise they have oversold the settlements issue. It's not the roadblock to Israeli-Palestinian peace or the key to the Middle East. At most, it's a symbol. Obama is moving beyond symbols.

Here are three big dynamic-changers we'll get in the Middle East in the next few months.

  • Decision time looms regarding Iran's nuclear ambitions. Obama has set a new tough deadline of September for a serious response to dialogue offer. The Iranian regime is weakened by the election it stole, but also enraged, savage, fearful and full of spite. It's not going to see its domestic humiliation replicated by the international humiliation of giving in to the Americans and Israelis on nukes. That means there will be tough sanctions against it or a military strike. Either way, it will mark a tough decision and the end of Obama's attempted universal love-in with all of America's enemies. Or, if the US response is meaningless, it will mark the beginning of a steep decline in Obama's international credibility.
  • The international public face of the Israeli government will become friendlier. Controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will be indicted on corruption charges. He will then leave the government. Whether unfairly or not, he is a visual roadblock to a better look for Israel. With the Iran issue up for decision, Kadima leader Tzipi Livni, or some big faction of her party, may join Benjamin Netanyahu's government. This will make it easier for Obama to love the Israelis.
  • The emphasis will switch from the Israel-Palestinian track to the Israel-Syria track for possible peace talks. In some ways now is a good time to pursue Palestinian peace negotiations because all the Arab nations, except Syria, are scared of Iran and therefore would help the US. But in reality talk of a Palestinian peace is meaningless right now. Nearly half the Palestinian population is controlled by the ultra-rejectionist, terrorist death cult Hamas.

More important, perhaps, all of Israel's neighbours, including the Palestinians, are fed a diet of anti-Semitic propaganda and hate material. A permanent peace with Israel means an end to all territorial claims against Israel and the acceptance of Israel as a Jewish state. For the moment, that's impossible.

But the US has real business to transact with Syria. Above all it wants Syria not to interfere with Iraq. Syria-Israel negotiations could provide cover for the US's business with Damascus. Syria's motivation is that its economy is a basket case. It wants an end to US sanctions. But a comprehensive Israel-Syria peace deal is unlikely. The minority Alawite tribe that rules Syria bases its entire legitimacy and justifies its emergency rule (in place these many decades) by its conflict with Israel. One incentive for Syria to do a peace deal is to take back the Golan Heights, but these are of little significance in themselves to Syria and their possession by Israel gives Damascus all the benefits of a permanent complaint. But look at the negatives. Israel will not give back the Golan Heights just for a peace agreement with Syria.

There would need to be a strategic realignment. Damascus would have to stop supporting Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza, and would need to break with Iran. But Syria exerts regional influence only through its terror proxies and alliance with Tehran. Giving these levers of influence away is unlikely to look like a bargain to Damascus.

But engaging in a lengthy flirtation, a courtship destined never to be consummated, which allows all manner of minor functional co-operation, with reciprocal benefits, to take place -- that is a game Damascus understands.

Why do I say Obama has cast himself as psychotherapist to the Arab world? A key point of psychotherapy is for the therapist to enter with empathy into the world of the patient, even if that world is delusional.

You may remember the classic Cary Grant comedy, Arsenic and Old Lace. Cousin Teddy thought he was Teddy Roosevelt. Asking him to leave the room because he was embarrassing the guests never worked. Telling him he was needed in the White House in his bedroom upstairs produced instant results. To get him to co-operate, Grant had to enter his fantasy. This has been Obama's approach to the Arab world. Sadly, there are no Arab democracies (with the partial exception of Lebanon). The region's political culture is steeped in paranoia, conspiracy theories and a licence to blame Israel for everything.

In the soothing, therapeutic overtures Obama has made to the Arab world he has ambiguously embraced a good portion of the culture's irrationality. In his Cairo speech (which contained many good things) he repeatedly cited the inability, yes, inability, of Muslim women to wear the hijab as a terrible human rights violation and disrespect to Islam. But that is not remotely reality. In Saudi Arabia, in Iran for that matter, it is a serious crime with severe punishments for a woman not to wear the hijab. Hardly anywhere in the world (French public schools? Some Turkish offices?) are Muslim women prevented from wearing the hijab.

Thus, to enter into the Arab fantasy, Obama rebukes an imaginary world of conspiracies.

His whole riff on the Palestinians' situation being intolerable ignores far worse situations for Muslims in Chechnya or Xinjiang, or indeed for religious minorities, such as the Bahais in Muslim Iran. Making the Palestinian issue the central question of geopolitics validates a view of the world that exists only in minds untroubled by reality.

Similarly, Obama set the creation and sustenance of Israel entirely in the context of the European Holocaust. Yet Britain had been committed to a Jewish state in Israel decades before World War II. The Zionist movement had seen hundreds of thousands of Jews settle in Palestine before the war. The Jewish connection to Israel is undeniable. And Israel has a modern identity as the Middle East's only democracy. While Obama always speaks with sympathy and deep emotion about the Holocaust (a practice that endears him to American Jews), by casting Israel only within the context of the Holocaust he is again semi-validating a key line of Arab paranoia: that they are paying for the sins of the Europeans in the war.

Finally, Obama's obsession with settlements in the West Bank and even in East Jerusalem, as if the entire Middle East, no, the entire Muslim world, hinged on this minor matter, is in the deepest sense irrational.

All of this presumably served Obama's purpose of establishing a therapeutic bond between himself and the Muslim and Arab world. But it is time to move back to rationality. Entering a patient's fantasy life can be a helpful therapeutic tool, but it confuses other people who overhear you.

As he moves to a compromise with Israel on settlements, gets down to business with Syria and ultimately confronts Iran, Obama will sound less and less like a therapist and more and more like a President. Good thing, too.,25197,25863807-7583,00.html

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Is it realistic to believe that if Israel was gone from every single square kilometer of the West Bank, the region will blossom with peace and prosperity? The notion that centuries of friction could be solved by rank amateurs and a handful of self hating Capos is absurd, there is no empirical evidence that it worked before. The toxic personalities mix is also very unhelpful because the Israelis are super sensitive to characters like General Jones, shabbily treated as a "U.S Special Envoy" of the failed GW Bush, or the "Ballerina" in the oval office, Ms. Emmanuel, or the Boshevik, marketing magician, Mr. Axelrod, not to mention the Samantha Power, the clueless Amb. Ross, the Lebanese negotiator, Amb. Mitchel, the sidelined Mme. Clinton, a real scrubber of historical proportions, nearly prosecuted for purposely hiding material evidence during the Nixon impeachment, which could result in losing her lawyer"s permit, a student of Saul Alinsky, like the shuck and jive POTUS, a master con artist...etc...a useless crew who were repeatedly wrong even as servants of the Great Bubba Clinton. Those who want to understand who is running the U.S should refer to Ms. Michelle Malkin"s new book dealing with the Chicago crowd and its methods. It will make it easy to understand why this crowd will only ruin the U.S.A and the rest of the world...

Posted on 2009-08-01 15:18:57 GMT