The US and Israel: Obama’s Playing Hot and Cold

Edited by Mary Young

Having not reached a single proposition for relaunching the process of installing peace in the Middle East, Barack Obama has multiplied his ostentatiously amicable gestures toward the Israelis, receiving, in turn, a glacial welcome from the Palestinians.

For his first international visit since his re-election, Barack Obama has regrettably not chosen to make any significant mark on history. Having arrived to the Middle East without any plans for peace — a far cry from his ambitious speech in Cairo in 2009 — the American president has taken an agreeable stance, largely in favor of Israel. The grand welcome that the leaders of the Hebrew state had reserved for him on March 20 set the tone for a visit that was meant to celebrate, above all, their bilateral friendship. No less than 15,000 police officers were affected by the security detail of the American president and his 500-person delegation. The slogan “Unbreakable Alliance” recalled certain characteristics of the G8: closing of the main roads of Jerusalem, entire neighborhoods brought to a halt, particularly around the King David hotel, where Obama spent two nights. The total cost: over $3.9 million.

Despite his lack of concrete propositions, Obama did his best to be charming. “It’s good to be back in the land of Israel,” he said in Hebrew to members of the Netanyahu government, who had all come to welcome him at Ben-Gurion Airport in Tel Aviv. He also planted a magnolia in the gardens of Shimon Peres, his Israeli counterpart, and met Yityish Aynaw, the latest Miss Israel, of Ethiopian descent, during a gala dinner.


Obama did not increase his efforts toward the Israeli prime minister. Beaming smiles, accolades and flattery attempted to erase the last four years of tumultuous personal relations. The two commanders displayed their reunion in front of a battery of Iron Dome anti-missile systems, an Israeli technological invention, which the United States helped finance in its entirety. “So I see this visit as an opportunity to reaffirm the unbreakable bond between our nations, to restate America’s unwavering commitment to Israel’s security, and to speak directly to the people of Israel and to your neighbors … I am confident in declaring that our alliance is eternal, is forever,” declared Barack Obama, announcing that he would instigate Congressional discussions in order to maintain an American military aid of $3 billion a year for Israel after 2017.

Behind closed doors, in Benjamin Netanyahu’s residence in Jerusalem, there was much discussion of Syria and, mostly, of reconciliation between Israel and Turkey, the only concrete accomplishment of Obama’s visit. Quarreling since the Israeli army attacked the Mavi Marmara flotilla, which had been off the coast of Gaza, resulting in the deaths of nine Turkish citizens in May 2010, Ankara and Tel Aviv had been refusing to change their stance. The Turks were demanding official apologies and reparations for the victims, and the Israelis were refusing point blank, provoking the expulsion of the Israeli ambassador to Turkey and the suspension of bilateral military cooperation. Then, a theatrical coup: on March 22, at Obama’s urging, Netanyahu called Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, the Turkish prime minister, in order to present apologies from the Hebrew state and offer compensation for the victims. The apologies were instantaneously accepted by Turkey, forecasting, according to Obama, the “restoration of positive relations” between Washington’s two allies.

On the topic of Iran’s nuclear program, the American president and the Israeli Prime Minister were careful not to show divergences. In September 2012, Netanyahu had asked the U.N. to mark a ”red line” in order to inhibit Tehran from arming itself with nuclear weapons as of March 2013. On March 14, Obama estimated that Iran was “over a year” away from acquiring this weapon. “We prefer to resolve this diplomatically, and there is still time to do so … all options are on the table,” clarified the American.

There was much less willingness on the Palestinian front, even though he reaffirmed his attachment to the idea of “two states for two people.” The inhabitants of the Palestinian territories, disappointed in his tactics, responded with a glacial welcome. Several hostile protests were held in Ramallah. In order to avoid escalating anger, American flags were only raised within the Mukataa, the headquarters of Mahmoud Abbas. After arriving in his Black Hawk, Obama flirted with a diplomatic incident by refusing to visit Yasser Arafat’s grave.

Once there, and before even addressing his first order of business with Netanyahu, he gently referred to Israeli colonization, “which doesn’t help the furthering of peace.”* At the risk of demanding a universal halt of construction in the West Bank, as was done in 2009, he judged that negotiations with Israel must be renewed without compromise, consequently putting the Palestinians against the wall. “We cannot negotiate under conditions of force, military occupation and arrests,” retorted Mahmoud Abbas.


Evidently, Obama saved his stronger appeals for the Israeli youth. On March 21, in front of 600 students gathered at the International Convention Center in Jerusalem, he portrayed himself as an advocate for peace. After having exhorted the Arab world to recognize Israel as the home of the Jewish people, he confronted the Hebrew state and its realities: “Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer … Palestinians have a right to be a free people in their own land.” It is difficult to judge what kind of impact these words will have. According to a poll conducted by the daily publication Maariv, only 10 percent of Israelis hold a favorable opinion of the American president, 17 percent hate him and 38 percent assume that he harbors hostile feelings toward their country.

Obama No Longer Has Baraka

“Obama, you promised hope and change: You gave us colonies and apartheid.” On March 20, in Jerusalem, the American president would not even have seen this haphazard gathering a handful of kilometers away in the West Bank, led by militant Palestinians dressed in tents from camps on a future Israeli settlement zone. American flags being burnt in Gaza, anti-Obama protests in Hebron, the ripping of his portrait in Ramallah … A people that used to give him respect during his election in 2008 are now angry. Washington’s passivity when faced with Israel’s increasingly forceful politics, as well as efforts to prevent the admission of Palestine into the U.N. and the extreme hesitation to recognize Hamas as anything other than a terrorist organization, has convinced Palestinians that the “new start” Obama announced in his speech in Cairo in 2009 was merely a weak promise. In Gaza as well as the West Bank, more hope is placed on a third intifada than on the White House.

This skepticism has been adopted by all peoples of the region. They have always had little faith in the United States; nowadays, it is total disillusionment, explains Karim Bitar, the director of research at the Institut de Relations Internationales et Strategiques [Institute of International and Strategic Relations] in Paris. In June 2012, the Pew Research Center published a thorough and telling poll: While only 34 percent of Muslims approved of Obama’s foreign policy in 2009, this number fell to 15 percent three years later. Bitar adds that Arabs should no longer count on Washington: “Diplomatic and domestic constraints are growing, and the maneuvering room for the United States to intervene abroad is shrinking.”


The most marked disengagement is to be found in North Africa: In 2011, Americans had left Paris and London on the front lines to bring Gaddhafi to the end of the line; two years later, they outsourced the securing of the Sahel to François Hollande. Perhaps their support for the Arab Spring was guided more by a pragmatic notion of laissez-faire rather than voluntary activism in support of democratic transitions. “They found a modus vivendi with the Muslim Brotherhood and its compatriots, without assessing the loss of credibility for the Islamists in Egypt and Tunisia,” said Bitar. More significantly, John Kerry, secretary of state, who had preceded Obama on his visit to the Middle East (Ankara, Doha, Cairo), did not step foot in the Maghreb. The violent protests against American representatives exploded after the movie “Innocence of Muslims” and concluded after the death of Christopher Stevens, ambassador to Libya; since they decided Washington should hang back, we must no doubt look further to understand American disinterest. “Wanting to leave his mark on history during his second term, Obama will concentrate his efforts in Asia. He knows that, in the Middle East and North Africa, it is a lost cause, and there are only hits to take,” concluded IRIS researcher Laurent de Saint-Périer.

* Editor’s Note: This quote, while accurately translated, could not be verified.

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