Throughout Obama’s three day visit, we couldn’t understand what the hell he came for. What brings an American president to Israel just two days after a new government is formed, while in the US a fateful debate is raging over the budget and economic policy? For three days we searched for the afikoman Obama had hidden, with no success. But just a few seconds after Obama boarded Air Force One to Jordan, the announcement went out: Netanyahu had spoken with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and apologized. The strategic relations between Israel and Turkey were renewed with Obama’s mediation, and the US president chalked up a gigantic strategic achievement.
Even before embarking on his current tour of the region, Obama indicated once again that the Palestinian issue is not high on his agenda and announced that he does not come with any new initiative. During his time here he managed to visit nearly every corner, distributing smiles left and right as he attempted to win over public opinion and prove that everything we thought we knew about him is wrong. And yet we still didn’t understand the purpose of the visit. For a moment it seemed that his speech at the Jerusalem International Convention Center in front of hundreds of students, in which he described the occupation as immoral, would be the crowning glory of the tour. Indeed, Obama explained what many have long since forgotten. My friends, he said, the occupation is alive and kicking, and it is very immoral. You have to do something about it!
Obama’s visit to the Palestinian Authority took just a few hours. This was sufficient, because there’s not much to see – technological achievements aren’t outstanding, there are no museums and Palestine has no Yad Vashem. If Obama had nevertheless made an effort to wander about a little, he would have come up against roadblocks, forlorn poverty and unemployment. This, of course, he has no wish to see. After all, who would want to see the tragic results of a deliberate policy? Preferable by far to have one’s photo taken in front of the Western Wall or Church of the Nativity. In the short time he granted President Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), he clarified what the US administration expects from the Palestinian leader: he must negotiate immediately with Netanyahu without any preconditions, and the Palestinian demand for an end to settlement building must be dropped. Obama and Netanyahu have joined forces, and things will not be the same again.
The new rules of the game
This message was conveyed to Erdogan too. During US Secretary of State John Kerry’s last visit to Ankara, he explained the new rules of the game to Erdogan, and hinted that he should change his behavior. Comparisons between Zionism and fascism, he said, undermine relations between Turkey and Israel, which now have common interests in light of the effect that Assad’s fall in Syria may have on the region – especially Lebanon, Turkey, Israel and Jordan.
The Arab Spring has certainly reshuffled the cards. Erdogan’s grandiose plan to rebuild the Ottoman Empire has proved a total failure. Syria, once friendly to Turkey, has become a bitter enemy; Hamas has transferred its loyalty from Syria to Egypt; and Iranian funds have been replaced by funding from Qatar. This is what goaded Turkey to settle affairs at home; talks with the Kurds were duly begun.
Before receiving Netanyahu’s call, Erdogan called Hamas Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh in Gaza and asked permission to renew relations with Israel. Haniyeh acquiesced, even though Netanyahu made no formal commitment to lift the naval blockade of Gaza. This did not stop Hamas politburo chief Khaled Mashal from sounding a note of victory and presenting Jerusalem’s apology as proof that only with force can the Zionists be brought to their knees.
The apology exposes the hypocrisy of all the sides involved, and in particular the political nature of the Marmara affair. All Erdogan wanted to do was restore past glory and establish Turkey’s standing in the Middle East after the European Union rejected Turkey’s request for membership. All Mashal wanted was to strengthen his regime in Gaza at the expense of the Palestinian Authority. As for Israel, all it wanted was to perpetuate its hold of the West Bank while strengthening its alliance with Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Jordan.
But then came the Arab Spring. In light of the changes in the region, Netanyahu was happy to allow Hamas to control the Gaza Strip and thus weaken the Palestinian Authority. Turkey understood that its own existential interests were more important than Hamas’ in Gaza, that Assad’s fall in Syria must be hastened, and that the bloody conflict with the Kurds must be ended.
Thus Obama tied up all the loose ends. He came to Israel and spoke with Netanyahu, phoned Erdogan, explained the new rules of the game to Abbas, and passed through Jordan to express his support for King Abdullah and his important role in the new regional order. Unintentionally, he also caused the resignation of Lebanese Prime Minister Najib Mikati and the fall of the pro-Hezbollah government. Not bad for a visit of four days.
New maps, old mistakes
The Palestinians in the West Bank, of course, are left stuck in the middle. While Hamas has the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Mahmoud Abbas has nobody to rescue him. The Jordanian king, keen as ever to play a leading role in the region, was quick to announce that his relations with Netanyahu are excellent. He even allowed himself to assert that the two-state solution was no longer feasible.
So what can Abbas do? He gave Obama two memos: The first noted that Israel builds on average 24 homes in the settlements each day, and that the number of settlers has reached 631,000 including East Jerusalem. The second announced that Palestinians are sick of having Israel as their jailer, and demanded the release of 107 prisoners who were jailed in the Oslo years, as well as Samer Issawi, the administrative detainee who has been on hunger strike for 242 days. It’s not clear what Obama did with the missives. One can assume he didn’t give them much importance – firstly, because they don’t say anything new, and secondly because he was busy with what had brought him here in the first place, the conversation with Erdogan, which is supposed to change the strategic situation in the region. As noted, the Palestinian issue has been pushed aside.
It’s clear that the cooperation between Turkey, Jordan and Israel brings Assad’s downfall even closer. It seems the Americans have concluded that attempts to reach an understanding with Russia aren’t getting anywhere. Moscow is rooting for Assad’s survival, while for the US the future regional order depends on his removal.
The general outline of the new regional order is clear: the Hamas government will receive Gaza as a dowry and accept Egyptian patronage, while the Palestinian Authority will remain with the West Bank alone – much to Abbas’ sorrow. Israel continues to be the basis of the struggle against Iran and will be a key player in shaping the Syrian regime after Assad’s downfall. The elections in Israel determined a new Zionist consensus – the settlements are an important part of the political fabric, and a permanent peace is impossible – therefore the only option is a long-term interim agreement which will freeze the current situation.
The problem is that the Americans are once again making the wrong calculations. They erred in Iraq, they saw how their allies in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen fell one after the other, and now they are counting on King Abdullah of Jordan and the unholy alliance between Turkey and Israel. Obama warned Israelis that the Arab world has changed. He also reminded them that peace cannot be made with autocratic regimes, that a hand must be extended towards the people, who are not willing to accept the continued Occupation. But it seems that what he expects Israel to understand he himself has not yet grasped.
Obama failed in his efforts to make changes within his own country, and now he is treading another path towards failure. The Syrian people will not accept any arrangement which leaves Turkey and Israel to manage Syria’s affairs, while the Palestinians will not accept the strange arrangement which leaves the settlements and the Occupation standing and divides the West Bank and Gaza into two separate entities. The Arab nations want real change, democracy and social justice. But this, it seems, Obama is unable to provide – either to the Arabs or to his own citizens. He does the bidding of Big Capital, and as such his time is over, just like the other leaders of the region who brought terror on their subjects and acted for the one percent at the expense of the 99.
—Translated from the Hebrew by Yonatan Preminger