Obama in the Middle East, aka Operation Another Desert Schmooze

By J Brooks Spector 22 March 2013

On Barack Obama’s first trip to Israel since becoming president, it would appear that he has taken a few tips from Binyamin Netanyahu’s operator’s manual for dealing with Americans directly, over the heads of President and his administration. Rather than focusing on government-to-government talks, he has directed time and energy towards public appearances aimed directly at Israeli citizens. And on the second day of his trip, during his West Bank visit, the US president said the Palestinians deserve an end to “daily indignities that come with” occupation. J BROOKS SPECTOR gets behind the smoke and mirrors of Middle East diplomacy.

An old friend tells the story – and swears it was true (and one has to believe him, as he is an intensely God-fearing, religious man and born-again Christian) – that when he served at the US Embassy in Israel, one of the American presidents, probably Bill Clinton, came for an official visit to the Middle East. An intensely scenic summit in the desert had been scheduled and my friend was the site officer for this event. Being a site officer means one is totally responsible for every single detail, no matter how small; that every eventuality is thought through, all contingencies have been considered, and there is a back-up plan B for every back-up plan. And, most crucially, that the wishes of White House senior officials are carried out. Period.

Well, the particular challenge for our friend was that the White House manager for this presidential visit – think of him as a combination of Quentin Tarantino and Daryl Zanuck rolled into one – wanted the summit meeting to look a certain way for the folks back home. This was going to take place in the desert – so there had to be date palm trees, even if they didn’t grow there naturally out in that part of the Sinai. And so, my friend went out and rented some of the trees and had them trucked into the place as a backdrop for the benefit of TV cameras.

Ah, but something was still missing, apparently. Bedouins and their camels: what’s an Arabian desert without these things, after all? So, my friend dutifully went off and arranged the short-term lease of camels and a camel driver. The way he tells it, just as the television cameras were poised to capture the leaders’ handshake under those rented palms, just off camera, my friend was poised to give the camel driver the “go ahead” so he could lead his ornery, recalcitrant charges in a stroll behind the two statesmen – thereby making it crystal clear this meeting was taking place in the desert, in the Middle East and that the president was definitely not in Kansas anymore. And of course, years later, the Middle East conundrum has still not been resolved, despite those palm trees and rent-a-camels.

All of this simply underscores the point that beyond those theatrics, US presidential visits to the Middle East are preeminently exercises in image sculpting and shaping, rather than efforts to reach new international realities. To the extent that such things actually occur in the Arab-Israeli conflict, the heads get knocked together slowly at lower diplomatic levels and then, finally, in a dose or two in a lock-down at Camp David or on the White House grounds where American power is so much more obvious.

This time around, for weeks after it was announced, Barack Obama’s administration as well as outside observers had been tamping down expectations this visit would be bringing specific new American proposals or big initiatives. Instead, there seem to be three interconnected objectives for the places he was visiting.

First of all, a key objective was to reassure the Israeli population of continuing American support for the country and people (but not necessarily of every position being taken by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newly formed coalition government). Then, there was the intention to rein in this new government before it heads off in the direction of total obduracy over key issues. And finally, a key theme was to reaffirm – especially to the Palestinian Authority based in Ramallah – the continuing US commitment to the two-state solution, despite many American commentators who have been arguing that this goal was already virtually at death’s door as a result of Netanyahu’s settlements policy, aside from all the other more traditional stumbling blocks like the status of East Jerusalem and repatriation or indemnification of refugees. Additionally and inevitably, part of the messaging from this visit by Barack Obama is also aimed back to the American populace – and Republican politicians – via a public demonstration of their admittedly fragile unity of approach by both the US and Israel towards preventing Iran from achieving its putative nuclear ambitions.

Obama’s trip, he has also taken a leaf out of Netanyahu’s operator’s manual for dealing with Americans directly, over the heads of Obama and his administration. Obama’s trip, his first to Israel since becoming president, has included lots of time and energy directed towards public appearances aimed directly at Israeli citizens. This seemed to come through even at their joint press conference on day one of the visit, rather than focusing on government-to-government talks. Obama sprinkled his various remarks with Hebrew phrases and Israeli local bloggers were writing, for example, “He had us at ‘Shalom’ [peace] ” – referencing Obama’s use of the traditional Hebrew greeting on his arrival.

On Thursday, Obama had a brief visit with the Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah where Obama restated the US commitment to that elusive two-state solution (No visit to Hamas-controlled Gaza was part of the itinerary and rockets fired into Israeli territory from Gaza underscored just how far from a comprehensive settlement the various parties still are at this point). During his West Bank visit, Obama said the Palestinians deserve an end to occupation and the “daily indignities that come with it”, adding that Israeli settlement activity is “unhelpful”. He also reiterated that direct negotiations are the only path to an agreement, saying, “There’s no short cut to a sustainable solution.”

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Photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (C) and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas (R) pose for a photo with Palestinian children during a welcoming ceremony in the West Bank city of Ramallah March 21, 2013. Taking a diplomatic detour from his first official visit to Israel, Obama traveled to the West Bank on Thursday for talks with Palestinian leaders who accuse him of letting Israel ride rough-shod over their dream of statehood. REUTERS/Ammar Awad

Describing the second day of Obama’s Middle East visit, AFP White House correspondent Stephen Collinson wrote, “Earlier on Thursday, Obama went to the Israel Museum to view the Dead Sea Scrolls dating back more than two millennia and which include some of the earliest text from the Bible… Obama’s new approach was a stark contrast to early in his first term, when he declared Israeli settlement building to be illegitimate and promised to dedicate himself to peace. He admitted on Wednesday that he had perhaps made mistakes, but argued that he was not the only US leader to have come a cropper on the issue. ‘I hope I’m a better president now than when I first came into office,’ Obama said. ‘I’m absolutely sure that there are a host of things that I could have done that would have been more deft and, you know, would have created better optics…’ The Palestinians are hoping Obama will help broker the release of more than 1,000 prisoners held by Israel and also free up $700 million in blocked US aid.”

Obama’s West Bank stop came on the second day of the visit. At that first day press conference together with Netanyahu, Obama stressed unwavering support for Israel. Obama also announced the two leaders had begun talks on extending the defence assistance agreement between the US and Israel, an agreement now scheduled to end in four years’ time.

But naturally, too, the civil war in neighbouring Syria came up as well at that media briefing. At that event, Obama pledged to investigate the possible use of chemical weapons in Syria, noting that any proof of the use of such weapons by the Syrian military against its opponents or civilians would be a “game changer” for American involvement in the conflict.

So far at least, the high point of Obama’s ongoing Middle East visit – a stop in Jordan remains – almost certainly has to have been his speech to a large gathering of Israeli students at a Jerusalem convention centre – in effect leapfrogging Israel’s current political leadership and, instead, speaking to Israel’s next, succeeding generation – and even back to his domestic American constituents through the way such an event is being reported. In his comments, Obama praised the country’s astonishing high technology successes (noting the continuity of creative energies that reached back to the famous 2,000-year-old Dead Sea Scrolls), and cheers for Obama’s words substantially outweighed the occasional heckling. Interestingly, Obama was cheered even as he told the assembled students that the current state of affairs in the Palestinian areas as a consequence of the Israeli occupation is untenable for all their futures.

Nevertheless, despite Obama’s often inspiring rhetoric, the big question for an Israel-Palestinian future remains the continuing growth in Israeli settlements in the West Bank – both the officially authorised ones as well as those other, unauthorised, ones. These settlement expansion policies continue in Netanyahu’s Israel, despite repeated finger wagging by American officials over these settlements and the baleful impact they will have on any possibility of a future comprehensive political resolution to Israel-Palestinian circumstances.

In contrast to the bold sensibility about the possibilities of Mideast peace that Obama came into office with back in 2009 – a view that earned him howls of protest by many Republicans and even allowed some critics to question his fundamental support for Israel – this time around, his administration’s goals are far more subdued. There is a sense that despite substantial American backing and military support for Israel, there is only so much the US will be able to do to advance a more comprehensive two-state settlement – for as long as Netanyahu’s government keeps to its stated policies of expanding new settlements in the West Bank territories. DM

Read more: 

  • The Coverage at
  • Abbas: PA, America ‘partners’ in pursuit of just peace, at the Jerusalem Post Analysis: Israeli settlements at core of conflict, at the AP
  • Obama says he’s not giving up on Mideast peace, at the AP
  • Five Things President Obama Can Do to Win Israel by Martin S Indyk (former US ambassador to Israel), at the Brookings Institution website
  • In Israel, Obama Seeks to Offer Reassurance of ‘Unbreakable Bonds’, at the New York Times The Middle East peace process – Could two become one? at the Economist
  • Remade Mideast poses new perils for Obama on trip, at the AP
  • Obama meets with Palestinian leadership in Ramallah at the Washington Post
  • Israelis lukewarm on Obama, at the Washington Post 
  • Gaza Militants Fire Rockets as Obama Visits, at the New York Times
  • Barack Obama Is Such a Traditional Jew Sometimes, at The Atlantic

Main photo: U.S. President Barack Obama (L) participates in a news conference with Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in Jerusalem, March 20, 2013. Obama said at the start of his first official visit to Israel on Wednesday that the U.S. commitment to the security of the Jewish state was rock solid and that peace must come to the Holy Land. REUTERS/Jason Reed



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"Joyfully to the breeze royal Odysseus spread his sail and with his rudder skillfully he steered." ~ Homer