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How do we explain US policies in the Middle East?

January 24, 2014 at 11:55 am

Barak Obama’s visit to the Middle East did nothing to revive the moribund peace process; nor did he try to halt Israel’s illegal settlement programme. In fact, the US president’s visit concentrated on two things: confirming the special and strong relationship between the United States and Israel, despite Obama’s difficult relationship with Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu; and adjusting US-Israeli policies on a number of issues facing new challenges in the region.

Addressing Jewish-American leaders at the White House before he left for Tel Aviv, Obama was clear about his goals. He wanted to “stress America’s concrete commitment towards Israel” and “confirm to Israel that the US stands at its side firmly in this situation where the Middle East is becoming a very harsh area for [the Zionist state].” The trip, he said, would send a clear message to Iran that “all options are on the table”, including the military option. At the end of the list came “finding a just solution to the Palestinian cause”.

So it was business as usual, with Israel’s interests first, second and third, and Palestine’s coming in a poor fourth, a mere rhetorical adjunct which is unlikely to go any further. Israel will be left to do as it pleases, even with illegal settlement construction. Needless to say, Palestinians had few expectations that the visit would produce anything tangible. It was, indeed, a tourist trip with a few photo-ops thrown in for good measure.

The Obama administration has proved since 2008 that it is unwilling to put pressure on Israel but is quite keen to pressurise the victims of Israeli policies, the Palestinians. The president appears to have forgotten that it was he who told Mahmoud Abbas to insist on an end to settlement building as a condition for returning to negotiations with Israel. Netanyahu has thus been able to ignore the weasel words coming out of Obama’s mouth and play the Iranian card; Israel’s “security” trumps all else.

It is difficult to predict which way America will go as Obama tries not to upset the Republicans in Congress in order to get his domestic agenda pushed through, especially relating to social security reform. It is clear that this plus the financial crisis (which mustn’t, under any circumstances affect US aid to Israel) are his priorities and main legacy items, much more so than solving the Palestine-Israel conflict.

The Arab Spring revolutions and the political changes they have brought to the Middle East may also be holding Obama back to see if Washington can manage the process without confrontation. Plus, of course, the Iranian nuclear issue is still on the table. All in all, the policy appears to be “wait and see”.

At the moment, nothing on the ground in Palestine or the surrounding Arab states poses a threat to Israel; the Arabs are too busy with their internal political affairs. The ongoing division amongst the Palestinians works in Israel’s favour, reducing as it does the effectiveness of any resistance to its military occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, especially with a compliant and financially-dependent Palestinian Authority acting as Israel’s security agent in the West Bank. Israel, therefore, has no need to make any “concessions” to the Palestinians or anyone else.

The Americans appear to be unhappy with the elites in the Arab world, not least because the financial and human cost of US interventions in the region and wider Islamic world have neither wrought the desired success nor improved the image of the US. Its support for removing the Soviet Union from Afghanistan, for example, spawned Osama Bin Laden and Al-Qaeda as well as the Taliban, turning the country into one of the most dangerous in the world. The US-led invasion of Iraq, for reasons morphing from getting rid of weapons of mass destruction to reining-in Saddam Hussein to complete regime change, is still unresolved and the country has become an outlet for Iranian influence. Iran, of course, is top of the US-defined “axis of evil”. US assistance in Libya also backfired, resulting in the killing of the US ambassador.

Israel, then, is able to market itself in Washington as America’s only trusted and steady ally in the Middle East. The problems of the region, it can argue, lie with the Arabs, not with Israel and its occupation of Palestine.

Within the next 10 years, America will no longer be reliant on oil from the Middle East. Indeed, it can become an oil exporter, nudging Russia out of pole position. This is a confidence booster in the US which is influencing its approach to the Middle East and the problems therein. It can soon afford to leave the locals to get on with it and sort things out themselves. A number of analysts believe that the US administration is moving slowly towards official indifference as it starts to focus on other matters which are deemed to be more in tune with Washington’s global interests. What is happening in China, India and Japan is of more importance to America, claim some people on Capitol Hill. Israel can thus be put on the back-burner, if necessary, while maintaining a readiness to protect the client state if it is threatened.

Perhaps this is what made Israel’s Justice Minister Tzipi Livni call Obama’s visit a “farewell trip”; clearly, he no longer considers the Palestine-Israel conflict to be a strategic threat when compared with North and South Korea, India and Pakistan or Taiwan and China. As Israel’s Haaretz newspaper put it, “Obama’s visit at this time at least is an attempt to move the political process; it shows in a contradicting manner the strategic option adopted by Washington, that Obama does not come to make peace, but rather comes to say good bye.”

Ever since its creation on Palestinian land in 1948, Israel has been America’s most-favoured foreign state, regardless of the political hue of the US presidents. In part this can be explained by the similarities between the founding of both countries, with mass immigration, a struggle against the indigenous population, colonisation and the need for pioneering settlers. Israel’s story is very like that of the USA, to which can be added the religious dimension of Christian Evangelical support for the “ingathering of the exiles” prior to what they believe will be the “rapture” and the coming of the kingdom of Jesus Christ in the Holy Land. The Nazi Holocaust and US limits on Jewish immigration during the thirties and the Second World War may also have produced a strong guilt complex on the part of US citizens.

Thus, the link between Israel and the US extends beyond the politicians in Washington into the homes and psyche of ordinary Americans. This allows the pro-Israel Lobby to influence policy and ensure US strategic, military, economic and political support for Israel. It is this which enables Israeli politicians to treat US presidents with barely concealed contempt even while it has amassed the equivalent of $234 billion in US aid since 1948.

There is no such pressure on America from the Arab world. On the contrary, Arab capitals appear to be all too eager to please the US despite policies which disregard Arab interests and rights. It is remarkable that the Arab world has maintained such strong ties to the US on every level. This also applies to states which once had strong links with the former Soviet Union and still have them with Russia.

Although Arab regimes played a major role during and after the Cold War, standing with the US against the USSR, they have not maximised the leverage that this could have given them. The only exception was in 1973 when oil was used as a weapon against the West; as has been mentioned, this weapon is diminishing in strength but the Arab leaders appear not to have noticed. In any case, they do little to convince the Americans to be more objective and balanced in their dealings with Israel and the Palestinians.

It remains to be said that American policies will only change when the Arab world changes and the leaders in Arab capitals actually operate globally in such a way that benefits them locally, based on their own interests and those of their people.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.