The crisis in the Middle East has slipped from the grasp of the U.S. The escalating violence in the Gaza Strip shows that as well. Barack Obama will have to give up his wait and see position, yet on account of the complicated relationships with Egypt and Israel, he lacks the alternatives to do that. Only one thing could force him to action.
The military escalation between Israel and the militant Palestinians in Gaza brings difficulties to a man presently dedicating himself to another region of the world: Barack Obama. While the U.S. president is just starting an extended trip to Asia, the actual effectiveness of his foreign policy in the Middle East is being tested. The conflict calls for an American voice. But this voice is barely audible; the president could earn a less than flattering reality check shortly after his reelection.
Suddenly the U.S. is under pressure to prove the sustainability of its relationships with Egypt and Israel. It will have difficulties getting through with its appeals for de-escalation in the face of the severity of the conflict. The fact that Obama has attended the upheavals in the Arab world without strategy now takes its toll.
The unstable and tense situation in the Israel-Gaza Strip-Sinai Peninsula triangle harbors great danger for U.S. interests. The crisis has gotten away from the U.S.; the policy from Washington has been playing catch-up with the events for quite some time now. From the beginning, Obama attributed high importance to the solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. He favored a two-state solution — out of conviction, but also because this solution serves U.S. interests, precisely at the moment of the Arab awakening. Up until now, Obama pursued the strategy of not getting further involved in the conflict as long as a rapprochement of the rivals was not in sight. Now the Gaza confrontation has complicated the situation. For a peace process, the Palestinian partner is increasingly absent, but Israeli willingness is also lacking.
Obama will have to therefore give up his wait and see position, but apparently he is lacking alternatives. And so the question poses itself: Could the present crisis be used as an opportunity to soften the hardened situation between Israel and the Palestinian authorities?
If the Palestinians should move, Obama will not shy from exerting pressure on Israel and the hard-line Netanyahu government. Conversely, Obama will be forced to intervene against the Palestinians if they once again attempt to upgrade their status at the upcoming U.N. General Assembly. An escalation would then be unavoidable. To dissuade President Abbas from his intention, Obama will need more than threats. Can he provide promises today — now before the election in Israel — and also keep them?
A second scenario that could force Obama to act will be the collapse of the Palestinian governing authority. Abbas is coming increasingly under pressure from radical forces. The escalation in Gaza has increased his isolation more. The embrace of the Islamists in the region is for the radicals in Gaza, not his government. Obama will do in this moment what he has always done as president: Wait and see. Since there is no other satisfactory alternative at the moment, the president will also only remain in a role of observer toward Syria. A looming humanitarian catastrophe could perhaps force him to change his position. But it will not come to a military intervention.
Against the backdrop of the past four years and Netanyahu’s involvement in the U.S. election on behalf of his friend Romney, one will observe tension in how Obama’s relationship with the Israeli prime minister will develop. It is not to be assumed that Obama will take revenge for Netanyahu’s conduct. Nor is it to be expected that both will reconcile. In spite of the potential tensions that cannot be excluded in the issues of Iran and the Palestinians, Obama will not rattle the relationships in the security zone because they correspond to U.S. interests.
So it remains that the Iran crisis could indeed force Obama to act. Everything points to 2013 being the year of decision-making. Obama will not want to leave behind a nuclear Iran as his foreign policy legacy. On the other hand, he cannot afford a new military adventure after two military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Here he will not be able to wait and see, especially as his goals are formulated clearly: A nuclear Iran is unacceptable and the policy of containment is no alternative.
Against this backdrop Obama will have to play the diplomatic card. It is safe to assume that the U.S. will put forward an offer in the first months of 2013, combined with clear demands. One can only hope that with the help of the sanctions, a serious willingness to negotiate on both sides will indeed commence a political process. These negotiations will be long and difficult, but from Obama’s viewpoint a credible process will dispense with the necessity of seriously thinking about a military option. If the diplomatic option should fail, he will unavoidably have to proceed militarily.
If this should succeed, Iran will have to forgo the military nuclear option — and receive approval for the right to accumulate for non-military purposes. And finally, Israel must be ready for two concessions: At least for the time being it will have to forgo military options, and should the negotiations between Iran and the U.S. lead to success, Israel must tolerate a diplomatic solution through gritted teeth. Should the negotiations fail, Israel will have to leave it to the U.S. to proceed militarily.
The transformation of the Arab world poses a challenge for the U.S. because it cannot develop a uniform strategy for all countries. To the contrary, it gets into a real dilemma: How does one strategically pursue one’s own interests and remain true to the values for which one stands in an Islamic area? This question will accompany Obama throughout his term of office.
There are, therefore, many issues, but only slim prospects that Obama will leave behind a historical signature in foreign policy — certainly not in the Middle East. In spite of some expectations — especially in Europe — Obama would be well-advised not to take the chestnuts out of the fire for the rivals in the Middle East conflict. That remains their responsibility.
Shimon Stein, 64-years-old, was the ambassador from the state of Israel to Germany from 2001-2007. Currently, he is Senior Fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies (INSS) at the University of Tel Aviv.