Around this time in a US presidential year, a second-term incumbent starts to think about legacy. The Republican and Democratic nominating conventions are a reminder that their White House presence is a thing of the past. As far as foreign policy and the Middle East is concerned, Barack Obama doesn’t have a great deal to boast about.
He has failed to end the insult to human rights which is Guantanamo Bay. His pullout of American troops from Iraq and the military bases there opened the way for the consolidation of power by Islamic State and its spread across the border into the Syrian conflict. In Afghanistan, the promise of withdrawal proved to be a pipe dream and there has been a steady reinforcement of soldiers.
And Obama has made virtually no progress on Israel-Palestine; instead driving a wedge in US-Israeli relations that has unleashed something of a backlash against America’s unthinking support of Israel. This slow change of attitude towards Israel produced some bitter divisions in both the Republican and Democratic parties as they forged their election platforms.
Donald Trump’s manifesto makes no reference to a two-state solution to the Middle East, much to the chagrin of Jewish lobbyists. Hillary Clinton has been required to fight a tricky battle with the left of the party so as to remove the word ‘occupation’ to describe Israel in the West Bank.
Obama’s one major success is the nuclear agreement with Iran so fiercely contested by Benjamin Netanyahu. Global monitoring group International Atomic Energy Agency declared that Iran has met all its initial nuclear commitments and many of the international sanctions have been listed.
Among those now supporting the deal is Israeli Chief of the General Staff, Lieutenant General Gadi Eizenkot, who is quoted as saying: “Without a doubt the nuclear deal between Iran and the West is a historic turning point… It has many risks but also presents many opportunities.”
The nuclear threat may have been postponed for up to five years, but Iran has not been put back in its box. Eizenkot believes Iran’s search for hegemony in the Middle East is the real problem. Its support for Hezbollah in Lebanon and Syria, Hamas in Gaza, the Houthis in Yemen and its dominant role in Baghdad are a real and present danger to Israel.
A battle-hardened Hezbollah is Israel’s most feared enemy. In Eizenkot’s view, its growing capabilities threaten the intelligence, aerial and ground superiority of the IDF.
Where does all of this leave the Israel-Palestine peace process? The failure of Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry to try to heal the scarred relationship with Netanyahu and to put its shoulder to the wheel in search of a two-state solution is proving deeply unsettling. It allows the hardliners in Jerusalem, who have no time for creating another ‘failed state’, to gain the ascendency. It also has given succour to the Palestinian stabbing intifada and terror against the citizens of Israel.
The most worrying aspect of benign neglect in Washington is the gradual erosion of support for Israel as seen in the party platforms of Republicans and Democrats.
The strength of AIPAC and Jewish lobbyists on Capitol Hill remains firm but, at the grassroots, there is an erosion of support. Hispanic, black and other minorities in the US have much less sympathy for Israel as do younger Jews on university campuses. It is almost certainly too late for Obama to turn the tide, although historically presidents have used the Middle East peace process to strengthen reputations in their final months in office.
The real concerns run deeper. The US and most of its Western allies long ago decided that a two-state solution was the most civilised way of ending the Palestinian conflict and diplomacy and foreign assistance has been calibrated to that end.
By taking the foot off the accelerator, the US has allowed the possibility of a one-state solution to develop.
If it were a unified state in which all citizens, Jews and Arabs, enjoyed equal democratic and economic rights, it might be an acceptable approach. But demographics and Israel’s right-wing nationalists are unlikely to allow that to happen.
That is why the next US president needs to commit to Middle East peace talks early and show real willpower in encouraging and supporting direct negotiations, so that a safer outcome for Israel and the whole region is forged.