Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Obama and the Middle East

Every time simmering conflict between Israel and the Palestinians flares into open war, we are reminded of our nation's long-standing support of Israel and Israeli foreign policy. Essentially what this means is we generally support whatever action the Israeli government is taking against the Palestinians. This has most certainly been the case under the Bush administration, which green-lighted the 2006 summer war and has thus far offered its mostly quiet support of the airstrikes against Hamas in Gaza.

If you've read our blog for awhile, you know that much of our support for Obama was premised on his apparent willingness to break with long-standing American foreign policy traditions which have been supported by both Democratic and Republican politicians. Though this particular phase of the conflict may be over by the time Obama occupies the White House, the hostilities serve as a reminder to anyone on the Obama team inclined to forget that events in the Middle East have a way of tossing themselves onto the front burner even in the midst of a grave American economic crisis.

Thus far, Obama has been silent on the conflict. Though there is some measure of prudence in hesitating to address the conflict, this has given critics room to argue that Obama implicitly supports the Bush administration's acquiescence to Israeli hard-liners. But unlike with the Russian-Georgian conflict where, for political purposes, Obama couldn't fail to offer some response, he gains little by weighing in on the conflict now, when the precise impact of his words as President-Elect would be difficult to guage.  

Of course, that's no reason for us not to speculate as to what an Obama administration would do about Israel. Obama has indicated some sympathy for the Palestinians in comments he made early in the race, but later in the race has used language indicative of support for Israel. So far even Obama's aides have avoided being more specific about Obama's views on our "special relationship" with Israel. But it's entirely possible to read his silence in another way; perhaps he's more generally sympathetic to the Palestinians than past Presidents, and would prefer not to create an uproar with any comments that could tip his hand. I for one cannot imagine Obama failing to understand the nature of the conflict, and how untenable our unwavering support of every Israeli foreign policy decision is. That being said, Israel has many, many allies in D.C. who are not at all eager to see our stance on the conflict change and who would be quick to make their opinions know to influential Democrats on the Hill.

Whatever conclusion Obama's personal opinions or political judgment lead him to arrive at, he should consider following the recommendations of people like historian Mark LeVine. Essentially, LeVine argues that we should end our support for corrupt but "moderate" Palestinian leaders who have been willing to sell out their own people in exchange for power and demand Israel withdraw to the 1967 boundaries and dismantle all settlements in the West Bank. Standard fare to this point, but he goes further, arguing that we should extend our nuclear umbrella, and NATO membership, to Israel and guarantee Israel's long-term security against destruction by hostile Arab states. Palestinian refusal would result in us "green-lighting" Israel's continued occupation, and Israeli recalcitrance would result in the withdrawal of all military and economic aid to the nation. Of course, LeVine recognizes how difficult such a move would be:

Were Obama courageous enough to put forward such a plan, it would no doubt be vehemently opposed both by the Israeli government (although outgoing Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has recently accepted much of its territorial component). The American Jewish leadership, its allies in Congress, and most of Obama's senior Mideast advisors, whom to a person have strong ties to Israel and the Jewish establishment, would also oppose it.

Yes, there is that. But Obama brings a considerable amount of political capital to the table, and such a drastic change in our approach towards Israel would likely be supported by a majority of Americans.

Obama has many kettles boiling all at once, in the economy, in Afghanistan, in Pakistan. But this conflict and the change in administrations could provide the first real opportunity in a decade to bring some measure of peace to the troubled Middle East. Let's hope Obama doesn't pass up this chance.

No comments: