Friends or Foes? President Obama and Israel

Reactivating peace talks between Israelis and Palestinians had been so far a perilous task, recently rendered mission impossible by the expansion of Israeli settlements across Palestinian territory. As a result, one can observe growing solidarity for the Palestinian cause spreading throughout the Middle East and the World, accompanied by a common feeling that peace with Israel is but a fading reality. Highlighted by Max Hastings in the Financial Times, the settlement crisis has reached an all-time low, creating an environment in which, in the words of a senior Jordanian politician, “peace with Israel is today very unpopular”. (Obama’s damaging silence on Israel, 25/11/2009).

Of little surprise to many, intense pressure has thus been placed on the shoulders of the American presidency. Eager to demark himself from its predecessor, President Obama had initially launched his presidency with a new-face American policy in the Middle East, setting out to revive the Peace Process through, amongst other things, greater support for the Palestinian cause (see the Cairo Speech by President Obama, June 4 2009). Six months on however, questions subsist regarding the impact of a new American administration struggling to match the high expectations placed by many in the Muslim world.

The mushrooming of new Israeli settlements throughout Palestinian territories has clearly aggravated an already fragile situation at the brink of collapse. (see Obama warns Israel on settlements – BBC, 18/11/2009). Asked to comment on the issue, Obama unusually aligned himself with international opinion, criticizing openly the construction of hundreds of new settlements in the Gilo neighborhood of Jerusalem. Speaking for the Financial Times, President Obama stated that “additional settlement building does not contribute to Israel’s security. I think it makes it harder for them to make peace with their neighbors…it embitters the Palestinians in a way that could end up being very dangerous”. (see Tobias Buck and Stanley Pignal, Israel defies US on settlements, 18/11/2009).

Helena Cobban, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, insists that hopes of achieving a two-state solution, or at best reviving Peace talks, will fade rapidly if Obama fails to distance himself from what she describes as “provocative – and illegal – actions” carried out by Israel. Preventing the ignition of the Jerusalem tinderbox, indeed constitutes a vital American interest which the Obama administration cannot surely afford to overlook. (Can Obama stand up to Israel?, 24/11/2009).

Israeli officials and supporters of Jewish settlements have countered the US position, underlining that  the American President must not, in the words of Israeli lawyer Danny Danon, “interfere with the rights of the Jewish People” (see Ben Hubbard, Israel Brushes off Obama criticism over Jerusalem – Associated Press 18/11/2009). In fact, Shmuel Rosner, Chief US correspondent for Haaretz, insists on the unstained American support for Israel, stressing that President Obama “is pro-Israel. Period.” (Obama supports Israel. Period., 27/11/2009).

Baring in mind the intimate relationship enjoyed by the US and Israel of recent years and the importance of Israel for American national interests, can Obama realistically stand up firmly and consistently to Israeli diplomatic blunders and initiate the scaring of worrying septic wounds of a Peace Process jeopardized by Israeli expansionist policies?

Listening with excitement to Obama’s Cairo speech only a few months back, the little progress made since then by the ambitious American administration came to me, as to many others, as an unfortunate reality-check. With hopes and expectations high under the summer sun, we are now heading into a new year with an all too familiar pessimism for a peaceful future in the Middle East. I believe one can only wait and see; after all, Obama has all the necessary tools at his disposal and another three years to match the expectations rightly placed in the latest Nobel Price for Peace.


Andrew Bower