Arik Segal
Founder of Conntix, lecturer at IDC Hertzliya

The Obama Effect – choosing the best strategy for America in the Middle East

The mastery of international political negotiation stems from one’s ability to capitalize on the best possible outcome that will satisfy the interests of all sides at a certain point in time. In this visit to Israel and the Palestinian Authority, President Obama managed to do just that. Looking at the unstable Middle Eastern environment, party politics and popular domestic trends, US’ foreign policy architects found the most effective negotiation strategy that will promote American interests in the Middle East in the short and long term, using a two level approach – the people and decision makers.

It would have been difficult to believe that in his visit Obama would present a new peace plan. The new Netanyahu government is considered to be even more right wing than its previous one since the extreme right-wing “the Jewish house”  party joined the already peace reluctant Bibi & friends. Despite stating that Israel is “committed” to the two states solution, Bibi has also stated that Jerusalem will not be divided and pre conditioned negotiations by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, which in practice means that the refugee issue will not be solved inside Israel. On the Palestinian side, the demand to stop the settlement buildup has not been answered by the Israeli government and the rise in Hamas’ power in the aftermath of the second war implies that currently there is a dead-end on that side as well. Nevertheless, thinking long term and being faithful to his beliefs, Obama chose to speak to the Israeli people. Saying in Hebrew that “you are not alone”, touched almost every heart in the Israeli public that suffers from an acute security paranoia disorder. By promising Israelis that the strongest power in the world will support Israel and that Israelis should and must believe in peace Obama would achieve two goals. The first is to hope that he convinced Israelis to vote for a more liberal, peace supporting government in the next elections, which the administration will be able to work with. The second is reaffirming the connection between Israel and US which is a vital American interest in the age of a burning Middle East.

To decide whether the Arab revolutions can be counted for an Arab “Spring” or “Winter” is not only too soon to tell, but is also irrelevant. At this point in time when reports trickle in about the use of chemical weapons in Syria and a second revolution in Egypt, it is clear that the Middle East is unstable and even more tense than it used to be. If Obama wishes to focus on economic issues and a rising China, he needed his two most important allies to make peace – Israel and Turkey — so  that they may once again share a common enemy: Syria.

Netanyahu who is (relatively) politically stable, was less vulnerable for collateral political criticism for giving an apology, especially with the main objector – Avigdor Liberman — out of the government (for now). Moreover, it is possible that Netanyahu agreed to apologize and cooperate with the US regarding the Iranian nuclear issue in return for American of the “Jewish state” and not demanding a settlement freeze. Erdogan on his side is in dire need of the Israeli gas since Turkey’s gas supply from Iran and Russia is being disrupted due to the Syrian conflict and its consequential tensions. It is also likely that for Erdogan it was easier to make peace with Israel while Turkey is focused on PKK’s call to cease the long lasting armed struggle. Unlike the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Obama did not appeal to the Israeli public that is probably still skeptical of the sudden improved relations. The American interest in restoring relations has a short term political gain and in this case this is what Obama needed and could get.

Israelis who admire and cheer for Obama sometimes forget that he is first of all an American President. As such, his primary responsibility above all else is to promote the American national agenda. In his first term, inexperienced and overly ideological, Obama tried to be more of a neutral mediator between Israel and Palestinians. After 4 years in which he realized that this strategy is not effective since Israel is turning more and more toward the right and the way to deal with it is to first regain Israeli public trust in America and in the long term work with it to believe in peace. Therefore Obama picked a side, the one which every American President picked before him knowing that supporting Israel is still the best choice for America. In the short term this approach serves American interests in the Middle East: good relations with its two powerful allies that share the same view about the Syrian conflict. However, in the long term, the US should put its efforts in promoting reconciliation between millions of Israelis, Arabs and Muslims which is a much harder task.

About the Author
Arik Segal is an international mediator and entrepreneur who specializes in the application of technologies in innovative dialogue structures. He established “Conntix” – a consultancy that aims to connect people through innovation and technology. He is a member of the Center for Applied Negotiations at the INSS and serves as the technology and innovation adviser for Mitvim. Arik is a lecturer at IDC Hertzeliya in the courses: innovative conflict resolution, innovative public diplomacy and online political campaigns. He teaches at the Rotary Peace Fellowship and gives guest lectures on international institutions such as Harvard Kennedy School.