Obama, Between Yesterday and Today

Four years ago, President Obama took a stand during what was a historic visit to the Middle East. When Obama came to the region in 2009, he gave his famous speech at Cairo University, which set up the framework for a relationship with the Arab and Islamic worlds. At that time, he stressed the importance of ending the Israeli occupation, establishing a viable Palestinian state and supporting democratic transitions in the region. The expectations and hopes of people in this region were high after that speech, and many people believed that it constituted a turning point in U.S. policy. An atmosphere of optimism about the future of the Middle East prevailed.

Soon after, however, Obama’s promises broke on the rock of Israeli intransigence. The U.S. president failed to compel Israel to halt construction of settlements — which Obama announced as a condition for the resumption of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations — in spite of his appointment of George Mitchell, special envoy for Middle East peace, as mediator.

With full support from the Zionist lobby, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thwarted Obama’s ambitions and his plan for peace in the Middle East, straining relations between them and influencing the decline of the U.S.’ role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Netanyahu placed the Palestinian cause on the U.S. policy shelf and put the Iranian nuclear dossier on the table instead. Moreover, Obama’s re-election did not bother the Zionist lobby in the U.S., as his position with regard to the Palestinian cause is approaching that of Israel more and more.

Obama is coming back to the Middle East after a political earthquake in the region that included the Arab Spring revolutions; the fall of the political systems of Hosni Mubarak, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, and Moammar Gadhafi and the rise to power of Islamists in these countries — not to mention the revolution, escalation of violence and approaching civil war in Syria. This has led to the Palestinian cause being put on a shelf. After Netanyahu won the Israeli election, he formed a new government that is more inclined toward war and continues to foment both the political and physical division of Palestine. The Palestinian issue is no longer a political priority in the region.

Obama’s visit today comes after his re-election to the U.S. presidency. With desperation in the region increasing, expectations for the visit — which appears to be mere tourism on the part of its most prominent party [Barack Obama] — are low. The majority of citizens in the region feel disappointed with U.S. policy toward the Palestinian cause and its crucial position toward the Syrian crisis. The U.S. has shown an unprecedented political deficit in dealing with the Syrian issue: It shyly supports the Syrian opposition but refuses to offer military assistance and has been unable to reach a solution that would bring about a peaceful transition of power in Syria. Everyone knows that the conflicting parties and other international and regional powers will not be able to find a solution other than through a U.S.-led effort.

Today Obama comes to a region plagued by violence and armed conflict in Syria and Iraq, a region where millions of people suffer and seek asylum from poverty and despair. But none of that is on President Obama’s agenda. The only things that will be on it are Israeli concerns about the supposed Iranian nuclear threat and the repercussions of the Syrian crisis, along with the impact of political changes in Israel.

With regard to the Middle East and its problems, U.S. policy has almost been at its weakest during the past few decades. When the U.S. leads an effort in the region, it is almost always the result of the political efforts of regional powers, Israel and Iran, to influence the course of the region, particularly in Syria.

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