Obama’s Mideast Fail

Even the liberal Washington Post says gaffes, inexperience have hurt Obama’s standing in Middle East


The Obama administration’s approach to Israel has been confrontational, ineffective, and politically costly to the president, according to a 6,500-word report and analysis in Sunday’s Washington Post.

From the beginning, the Post reports, Obama sought to put “daylight” between the United States and Israel, as he believed that pressuring Israel was the only way to “restore the United States’ reputation as a credible mediator” and “regain Arab trust” in the Middle East.

To do this, he would “talk tough to Israel, publicly and privately.”

When Obama explained this strategy to Jewish leaders at a White House meeting in 2009, even the liberals in attendance were concerned. “We believed from that point that we were in for problems,” Abraham Foxman, head of the liberal Anti-Defamation League, told the Post. “And we were right.”

According to “close advisers” to Obama, the president sought to demonstrate to Arab states “that he could change Israeli behavior on the ground.” When Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu arrived at the White House for his first meeting with the President, Obama confronted him with an unprecedented demand for a “settlement freeze”—a cessation of housing construction in Jewish communities across the 1949 armistice lines.

The day before Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas arrived in Washington to meet the president in May 2009, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton delivered more tough words for the Israelis in an appearance with the Egyptian Foreign Minister, lecturing that Obama “wants to see a stop to settlements—not some settlements, not outposts, not ‘natural growth’ exceptions.”

Clinton’s formulation was tougher than any previous statement from the administration, “but the president declined to soften that position when he had a chance,” the Post reports.

As the repeated public criticism and diplomatic snubs piled up, “Israeli officials wondered why Obama was not applying [to Palestinians] the same pressure they had been feeling.”

The criticism and confrontation would continue through Vice President Biden’s visit in 2010 and Netanyahu’s visit to the White House weeks later, when “the White House did not allow photos” in order to deny Netanyahu “an image to reassure his public that all was right with the U.S. president.”

Even the Palestinians found Obama’s approach to Israel puzzling, the Post reports. “What you saw…was a complete lack of an emotion-based relationship with Israel,” a former Palestinian adviser to the PLO told the Post.

“An image was being created that it was pain-free to say no to the United States,” another Palestinian adviser told the paper. “That is what informed [Abbas’s] thinking about Obama.”

When the Palestinians pursued a UN Security Council resolution declaring settlements illegal, Obama placed a one-hour phone call urging Abbas to drop the matter. “Abbas told him flatly that he planned to proceed”—and Obama did not publicly criticize the Palestinians as he had done so many times with Israel.

Having elevated the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to “a vital national security interest of the United States,” the Post concludes, Obama failed to make progress due to his “political and tactical misjudgments,” his “lack of trusted relationships” with Middle East leaders, and his “outdated view of [the] conflict that many of his closest advisers imparted to him.”