Can Biden Correct Obama’s Mistakes in the Middle East?

As President Biden toured the Middle East this week, he found himself caught between the demands of human rights and pro-Palestinian activists and the harsh realities of US national interests. His administration had hoped to revive the Iran nuclear deal while pressuring Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians and reducing American obligations to and engagement with the Gulf Arab States. This policy mix excites the Democratic Party’s liberal internationalists but ignores reality.

It collapsed under the weight of Iran, which used Mr Biden’s pledge to rejoin the nuclear deal as a cover for a massive accumulation of weapons-grade uranium while strengthening its ties with Russia and China, and under the failure of Mr Biden’s greener one Energy agenda amid rising oil and gas prices. The President is now trying to strengthen old American alliances with countries like Israel and Saudi Arabia.

That will not be easy. Arabs and Israelis alike remember the Obama administration’s serial blunders: the disaster of its pro-democracy policies in Egypt, its misguided embrace of Turkish politician Recep Tayyip Erdogan as the leader of “democratic Islamism”, its failure to restore order in Libya after aid was delivered Overthrowing Muammar Gaddafi, his vacillation over the “red line” in Syria, his helpless endorsement of Vladimir Putin’s reassertion of a Russian role in Syria. All of this eroded the region’s confidence in the wisdom and even the competence of America’s top political leaders.

Unaware of their diminished standing, senior Obama administration officials alienated Israeli and Palestinian negotiators by attempting to dictate the terms of the peace. Secretary of State John Kerry tirelessly lectured his Israeli and Palestinian interlocutors about their true interests. “You Palestinians can never see the big picture,” White House national security adviser Susan Rice admonished Saeb Erekat, the chief Palestinian negotiator. At a White House meeting on March 17, 2014, Mr. Obama tried to persuade Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to sign on the dotted line, telling him, “Don’t argue with this or that detail. The occupation will end. You will get a Palestinian state. You will never have an administration as committed to it as this.”

Mr. Abbas was unimpressed. He and Erekat, not to mention Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saw the big picture much more clearly than the Americans. US officials had failed to understand not only their own drastically diminished authority and prestige, but also the changing nature of Israeli society and the implications for American diplomacy in the pursuit of peace.

President Obama and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan in 2015.


ozan kose/Agence France-Presse/Getty Images

The more liberal wing of the Israeli political establishment was rooted in the “Ashkenazi supremacy” that ruled Israel in the first decades of independence as thoroughly as the WASPs once ruled American life. But over time, a mix of Sephardic and Russian immigrants, along with the rapidly expanding ultra-Orthodox and Hasidic population, began to challenge the old, largely secular and Western-leaning elite. The old establishment persisted in the judiciary, universities and certain security institutions. But its members became increasingly alienated from the less polished, less Western, less liberal, more religious, and more Middle Eastern country that Israel was becoming.

In an Israeli form of identity politics, right-wing voters, resentful of what they saw as discrimination and contempt by the establishment, have rallied behind leaders like Menachem Begin (Prime Minister 1977-1983) and Mr Netanyahu (1996-99, 2009) merged -21). These leaders were less open to American ideas and less susceptible to pressure from Washington than their predecessors. The Russian, Sephardic and ultra-Orthodox voters who supported her largely did not share the guilt towards the Palestinians that haunted the old Israeli establishment. Their knowledge of Arabic culture, language, and attitudes made them despise what they saw as fuzzy-thinking Americans spouting stupid platitudes about the Arab world.

They had even less respect for the opinions of American Jews. These Israelis, or their parents, were often refugees from Arab countries where they had suffered discrimination and persecution. They felt they owed no apologies to the world and the Palestinians. In their view, spoiled and wealthy American Jews who had never owned a gun, patrolled a Palestinian street, or huddled in their basement with their families while Palestinian rockets went overhead had nothing to do with lecturing the Israelis about where should cross their borders.

Neither Mr. Kerry nor Mr. Obama seem to have understood how their own personal unpopularity in Israel has changed the politics of peace among Israelis. As Jews from the former Soviet Union saw Mr. Putin ringing Mr. Obama on the international stage, as Mizrahi Jews from Muslim countries heard Americans repeat the spongy liberal rhetoric of a condescending Israeli establishment that despised them, association with these Americans became toxic. Right-wing politicians saw no reason to hide their contempt for Americans and their trial; In particular, the attack on Mr. Kerry brought political dividends. Defense Secretary Moshe Ya’alon (2013-16) sneered at what he saw as American naivety, messianic delusion and arrogance in conversations with journalists. The only thing that will save Israel, he was quoted as saying in 2014, “is if John Kerry wins his Nobel Prize and goes home.”

Some of the key arguments the Americans used to persuade the Israelis to move towards a two-state solution lost traction. If a Palestinian state could not be established, Americans often argued, Israelis would be faced with the choice of becoming an undemocratic “apartheid” state ruled by an Arab majority, or allow the state’s Jewish character to disappear if the Arabs take over the Knesset.

This demographic argument does not go down well with serious Zionists. In the 1930s and 1940s, the Arabs greatly outnumbered the Jews. The Jewish minority faced constant pressure to accept minority status in a single state, both from the Arab majority and from Britain, which administered Palestine under a League of Nations mandate. If the tiny, impoverished, and almost friendless Jewish community could reject a one-state solution, then surely a nuclear-armed regional superpower whose technological prowess is the envy of the world could define its borders and set its political course.

As US negotiators warned that failure to implement Mr. Kerry’s peace initiative would isolate the Jewish state, Israeli officials felt that Americans had once again lost touch with important regional dynamics. Even as Jewish settlements in the West Bank grew, Arab governments drew closer to Israel and openly showed impatience with the Palestinians. As the Obama administration shifted from a policy of reconciliation with the Arab world to a policy of building bridges with Iran, many Arabs interpreted apparent inaction, coupled with US passivity in Syria, as a historic betrayal.

Arab world public opinion, horrified by the bloodshed in Libya and Syria and shocked by America’s lack of a positive agenda on these critical regional issues, has grown more tolerant of the mistakes of its own rulers and less willing to support dangerous movements for political change . The Arab Spring never turned into summer. No one wanted to end up like Syria or Libya, and everyone could see the worthlessness of American support for the Egyptian pro-democracy movement.

In a world where Russia and Iran were poised to brutalize Syria into obeying the Assad dynasty again, the West Bank’s fate seemed less important than ever. And both Israel and its Arab neighbors increasingly viewed America’s new Iran policy as their greatest security threat.

The new constellation of forces made its debut during the Gaza war in the summer of 2014, shortly after the last flames of the Kerry process had died down. After a series of mutual provocations and retaliations, the Israeli forces launched massive airstrikes and rocket launches into Gaza. Ten days later, Israeli ground forces moved into the strip.

As the ceasefire negotiations dragged on, it became clear that Egypt, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Fatah (the governing party of the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank) were tacitly backing the Israeli position, hoping Hamas would be hit as hard as possible would . American negotiators sided with Turkey and Qatar, who pushed for a faster end to the fighting to reduce the death toll, an outcome that would yield an outcome that Hamas could call a victory at the expense of Hamas .

For the Israelis, a lesson seemed obvious. In a bitter conflict in which Israelis fired on Palestinian cities, the major powers of the Arab world supported Israel – against the US. Inadvertently and unwittingly, the Obama administration had achieved a goal that had eluded generations of American diplomats: laying the foundation for Israel’s integration into the Middle East.

Mr. Biden’s attempt to revitalize core features of Mr. Obama’s Middle East policy has Arabs and Israelis wondering if the days of condescension and arrogance had returned. It is hoped that this is not the case and that the President and his team succeed in winning back the respect of key leaders and those in power throughout the Middle East.

Mr. Mead is a columnist for the journal Global View. This is an adaptation of his new book, The Arc of a Covenant: The United States, Israel and the Fate of the Jewish People.

Journal Editor’s Report: The best and worst of the week from Kim Strassel, Allysia Finley and Dan Henninger Photos: Three Lions/Getty Images/AP/AFP Composite: Mark Kelly

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