For a politician, there is no more dangerous combination of traits than hubris and ineptitude. In a friendly environment, the detrimental effects of these flaws can be staved off, for a time, by talented spin doctors, a sympathetic press, or the enthusiasm of one's followers. In the maelstrom of Middle East politics, however, they tend to be almost immediately apparent, and the resulting fall from grace is often precipitous. President Barack Obama, who appears to possess both traits in unique abundance, has had to find this out the hard way; and whether he has learned his lesson or not remains to be seen.
In Israel, however, conclusions have already been drawn, and the results are not particularly pretty for Obama. Put simply, he is the least popular American president in recent memory. The percentage of Israelis who consider him friendly to Israel has never been high, but it has dropped at various times into the single digits. Considering that the Israeli left polled 16% of the vote in the last elections, and the centrist Kadima party another 22% - higher, in fact, than Netanyahu's Likud - Obama's dismal numbers cannot be put down to simple partisanship. Israelis across the political spectrum are clearly convinced that Obama is indifferent and/or hostile to Israeli interests, sensibilities, and concerns.
It is worth pointing out that Israel was a problem for Obama almost from the beginning. During the 2008 campaign, much was made in Jewish circles of his political roots on the radical left; his friendships with Rashid Khalidi, a vitriolic partisan of the Palestinian cause, and the demented preacher Jeremiah Wright; and his sometimes ambivalent statements on the subject. In February 2008, for example, Obama remarked, "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you're anti-Israel," which is practically identical to the rhetoric employed by Israel Lobby conspiracy theorists. His statements on Jerusalem also proved decidedly bizarre, both pledging that it would remain united and asserting that this was an issue to be settled in future negotiations. While everyone is at least vaguely aware of the fact that American presidential candidates always make promises regarding Jerusalem which they have no intention of ever keeping, the suspicion among many was that the candidate was trying to solidify his American Jewish support while signaling his true intentions to his progressive base. When Obama began his administration by demanding that Israel freeze all settlement construction, including in Jerusalem, while asking nothing of the Arabs besides a vague call for "normalization," Obama's Jewish detractors believed that their suspicions had been confirmed.
These misgivings, however, were mainly those of pro-Israel American Jews. For the most part, the Israelis themselves adopted a wait-and-see attitude toward Obama, both during the campaign and after his election. On the day the returns came in, television and radio stations all over Jerusalem were tuned into the news; and several people spontaneously expressed their sentiments to me (as Israelis are notably wont to do). Overwhelmingly, they were surprisingly well aware of the historical significance of Obama's election in terms of America's long and tortured struggle with the issue of race, and expressed no hostility toward him. If this was the case in one of Israel's most politically right-wing cities, one can assume that similar attitudes prevailed in the rest of the country. Indeed, some on the Israeli left were positively enthusiastic about the new president.
While it is true that Israelis did not greet Obama's election with rapturous celebration, as many others did, it is easy to read too much into this. Israelis tend to be ambivalent about incoming US officials in general, especially when they are - as Obama was - relatively unknown quantities. It is also important to remember that, for much of the world, the president of the United States is largely an aesthetic experience. In the Middle East, however, the policies of the chief executive can have very serious and immediate real world consequences. As a result, Israelis on the whole tend to be more guarded and sober in their assessments. Moreover, a large part of Israelis' apprehension regarding Obama was the fear that he would end up in a clash with Benjamin Netanyahu, who seemed the likely winner of upcoming elections. This was not a judgment on Obama or Netanyahu per se, but rather the understandable desire to avoid a rift with the United States. And when the elections were held in February 2009, it was Tzipi Livni, whose campaign included the claim that she would work more easily with Obama than Netanyahu, who won the highest percentage of the vote; although due to the intricacies of the Israeli electoral system this did not allow her to form a government.
This indicates that Obama's call for a settlement freeze might not have had such disastrous consequences had it been handled differently. Israelis are divided on the issue of settlements, and had Obama proved flexible on Jerusalem and its nearby "consensus" settlements, which most Israelis consider essential to their security and want to retain in any peace agreement, some sort of modus vivendi might have been reached early enough to avoid a serious breach. In his insistence on a total freeze, however, Obama was demanding something that was both too much for most Israelis to swallow and Netanyahu simply could not deliver without destroying the coalition that kept him in government. Obama may have hoped for precisely that, believing that a new, more pliable government led by Livni would replace Netanyahu. If so, it was a horrendous miscalculation. Many Israelis did not vote for Netanyahu, but very few of them like to see their country pushed around.
Obama's reputation in Israel might have survived even this, however, had it not been for his much-hyped "speech to the Muslim world" delivered in Cairo on June 4. Taken as a whole, the speech was simply a craven embarrassment; but the references it made to Israel could not have been more alienating and insulting had they been calculated for the purpose. How Obama's speechwriters and advisors became convinced that equating the Holocaust with the Palestinian nakba (the word means "catastrophe," and Arabs use it to describe the establishment of Israel and its War of Independence in 1948), comparing Israeli treatment of the Palestinians to segregation in the United States, and pointing to the Jewish people's "tragic history" as the sole justification for Israel's existence would assuage Israeli concerns about the new administration must remain a question for history to answer. There is no doubt, however, that this single speech (which everyone in Israel watched) did more to demolish Obama's credibility in Israeli eyes than any of his demands on Netanyahu ever could have.
Israelis come in many political colors, but very few of them believe that if the Jews had not suffered a Holocaust, they would not deserve a state. Zionism predates the Holocaust, and it holds that the Jewish people have an inalienable right to self-determination in their homeland, regardless of their historical sufferings. In claiming otherwise, Obama revealed not only a glaring ignorance of Israeli history and sensibilities, but also the depressing tendency of many American liberals to reduce everything to do with Judaism, Israel, and the Jewish people to the Holocaust; as though several thousand years of Jewish civilization never occurred. Obama's remarks about segregation were perhaps less egregious, given that they had some precedent in the words of Condeleeza Rice; but they were disturbingly similar to the notorious 1975 UN resolution that declared Zionism a form of racism. By far the most damaging statement, however, was Obama's equation of the Holocaust with the nakba. It is true that 1948 was a catastrophe for the Palestinians, and many thousands of them were displaced - voluntarily and involuntarily - as a result of the war; but for many Jews (and many non-Jews) the equation of this to the Holocaust was not only morally appalling but served to minimize a genocide that is still within living memory, and did so in front of an audience that often claims it never happened at all.
Perhaps the most disturbing thing about the speech, however, was that Obama clearly believed he was saying things about Israel that were positive. The impression he gave was of a man who was not merely spitting in Israeli faces, but chose to do so because he thought they would like it. In a certain sense, this was even worse than a speech that was forthrightly hostile, because it implied that Obama was perfectly capable of damaging Israel out of the belief that he was actually doing it "for your own good" – a signal that the new president of the United States simply had no idea what he was doing.
This was devastating for Obama's standing in Israel because, in a place like the Middle East, with its sudden shifts and unexpected eruptions of violence and instability, there is no greater sin than idealistic incompetence. Those who commit it are not simply considered dangerous, but tragically farcical. As a friend of mine, whose sympathies lie mostly on the left, told me a few weeks after the speech, "He's just like Bush, running around the world thinking he's going to change things…" Israelis have learned through long and bitter experience that lofty dreamers tend to be crushed under the weight of the real world, especially in the Middle East. A president who does not know this, or thinks it does not apply to him, is bound to be regarded not only with skepticism, but with outright contempt and suspicion.
These suspicions were mostly confirmed after the Cairo speech by Obama's total failure to wrest any concessions whatsoever out of the Arabs. No moves toward normalization have been made, and they appear more unlikely with each passing month, leading Israelis to believe that they are correct in assuming that the Arabs, even when they are offered what they supposedly want, are more interested in making life miserable for Israel than in making peace. The Palestinians, for their part, have made it clear that nothing short of a complete settlement freeze will satisfy them. Given that a complete settlement freeze is not going to happen under any foreseeable circumstances (even a Livni government would probably find it politically impossible to enact one) this means, in effect, that Obama's even-handed approach is stillborn. The Arabs have left one hand empty, and his relationship with the Israelis is now so damaged that Netanyahu probably could not sell further concessions to the Israeli public even if he wanted to (which he most certainly does not). For Israelis, the entire situation smacks of grotesque ineptitude.
Obama himself seems to have at least partially grasped this fact. He has been quietly backing off some of his demands, and at his September 22 meeting with Netanyahu and Abbas, he spoke of "restraining" settlement activity, rather than a complete freeze. Whether he is trying to pressure the Palestinians into making some offers of their own or trying to improve his standing in Israeli opinion polls is not clear; but what is clear is that it may have finally dawned on Obama that his attempts at changing the face of the Middle East through grand gestures and soaring rhetoric has had precisely the opposite effect. If anything, it has simply confirmed that the Middle East is not going to change anytime soon, and progress will have to come on the region's own terms, if at all.
In all likelihood, however, it is already too late. Indeed, it is difficult to fully convey the depth of Obama's failure on this issue. The presidents who have been most successful in the Middle East have accomplished their goals by slowly building up confidence, relationships, and political capital with the major players in the region, and then trying to piece together some sort of rapprochement between them. Sometimes even this has proved impossible, and rapprochement has been abandoned in favor of simply lowering tensions and attempting to reach a workable status quo with a minimum of violence. In trying to forgo this simple but difficult process, Obama has not only failed to achieve any tangible gains, but may have destroyed the possibility of his ever doing so. Less than a year into his presidency, his credibility with both sides is already shot, whatever political capital he had has long since been spent, and he has personally alienated America's closest allies in the region. As a result, it is quite possible that Obama's role in the Middle East for the rest of his presidency will be exactly what it is now: He will make grandiose statements and hold occasional photo-ops, and the parties involved will go through the various motions required to appease the president's immediate demands; but barring some breakthrough between Israelis and Palestinians working on their own (which is unlikely, but not impossible) this will simply produce more of the same. For a president who entered office pledging to change the world, this cannot be seen as anything other than an unmitigated disaster.
There are probably two main reasons for the early collapse of the Obama administration's ambitions in the Middle East; one regarding Israel and one regarding Obama himself. In regard to Israel, Obama failed because of his inability to grasp Israel's attitude toward the peace process in the post-Oslo era. The trauma that Oslo represents for Israel is difficult to fully convey to foreigners. It was both the first peace agreement that failed and the first time Israel gambled on peace and lost. For nearly a decade, Israel struggled through political division, assassination, terrorism, and potential civil war, only to see it all end with the most brutal terrorist war it had ever encountered. Even more traumatizing, perhaps, was the reaction of the rest of the world. Throughout the Oslo process, Israel believed that it was taking an enormous chance for peace, and that the world would acknowledge and understand this if the process failed. This faith was most fervently expressed at the 2000 Camp David negotiations, where Ehud Barak made an offer to Yasser Arafat that crossed many of Israel's previous red lines in regard to Jerusalem, territorial concessions, and holy sites. When Arafat turned it down, and the second intifada began shortly afterward, most Israelis felt that their efforts for peace and the dangerous position they had put themselves in would at least be acknowledged by others. Precisely the opposite happened. Condemnation of Israel was more violent than it had ever been in the past, and a worldwide outbreak of anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic sentiment followed. As a result of all this, Israelis looking back on Oslo feel, more than anything else, betrayed. They have lost their faith and trust in the Arabs, in the international community, and to a great extent in the peace process in general. While they are still willing to negotiate and make concessions, they feel that they should not be asked to take an Oslo-sized gamble again.
Obama's opening gambit seemed, to many Israelis, like precisely that: Oslo resurrected as farce. Once again there were the dreamy, grandiose pronouncements about peace and change. Once again there seemed to be scant regard for Israel's legitimate security concerns. One again Israel was being asked to make major concessions for what appeared to be little in return, and to an enemy Israelis did not trust. Once again Israel was being condemned for its supposed intransigence and obstructionism. Once again there were the assurances that the international community had Israel's best interests at heart. Once again there were the admonitions that it was necessary to take risks for the sake of peace. And once again, there was the specter of an unfriendly American administration forcing Israel's hand, just as George H.W. Bush forced Yitzhak Shamir into the Madrid conference in 1991, the first step toward the Oslo process. Whatever Obama's personal and political charms may be, they could not possibly overcome Israel's unwillingness to go back down that particular rabbit hole.
During the February 8, 2008 conversation mentioned above, Obama said, "If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress." In a way, Obama got his honest dialogue with the Israelis, but he didn't want to hear what they had to say. This failure is entirely his own. Perhaps he thought that his closeness to aides like Rahm Emanuel gave him some special understanding of the Israeli mentality. Perhaps all those years hanging out with Rashid Khalidi and Jeremiah Wright blinded him to the possibility that Israel is not an all-powerful military juggernaut, but a small country deeply apprehensive about its future. Perhaps he thought that Israelis would be as enraptured with him as the 78% of American Jews who gave him their votes. Perhaps he simply wasn't interested or didn't care. In the end, this kind of speculation is irrelevant. Obama has lost the Israelis, possibly for good, and he has no one to blame but himself.
This speaks to the second reason for Obama's failure in the Middle East. Ironically, it was illustrated quite well by Rahm Emanuel in a September 25 article in Haaretz, the day after the Obama-hosted Abbas-Netanyahu summit. "Both Israel and the Palestinians must 'seize an opportunity,'" Haaretz quoted Emanuel, "because they are faced with 'a unique moment in time in the region.'" Obama's chief of staff went on to claim that this was because of the strength of the Israeli and Palestinian governments, a claim that is somewhat untrue of the former and entirely of the latter; which simply emphasizes the fact that there is nothing particularly unique about this moment; and there is certainly nothing particularly auspicious about it. Abbas is weak and largely discredited among his own people. Hamas is still dedicated to Israel's destruction and still firmly in control of Gaza. If free elections were held in the West Bank, Hamas would have a good chance of winning them. Hezbollah is gearing up for another war in the north. The reaction to the Gaza operation had solidified Israel's total lack of faith in the goodwill of the international community. And over it all, the Iranian theocracy is still pursuing nuclear weapons, and has shown itself perfectly willing to do so over the dead bodies of its own people. It is a fool's game to try and predict the future in the Middle East, and Obama may find a way to resurrect his failed policies, or events may suddenly turn in his favor; but at the moment, the situation here is largely as it has always been: dangerous, unstable, and unforgiving.
However Emanuel may try to spin it, his (and we must presume Obama's) conviction that, against all available evidence, the Middle East is now in an unprecedented position to achieve peace is the kind of wishful thinking that has typified Obama and his advisors since his candidacy began. Put simply, they really do believe that Obama is a transcendent leader whose emergence represents a change in the workings of human history itself. By simply being, President Obama changes the world. The problem with this is not just that it is absurd, which it is, but that it leads to perhaps the worst delusion that a politician can suffer from: The refusal to acknowledge that the world is neither bad nor good, but simply indifferent. It does not care about what we want it to be or what we think it should be. The world is stubborn. It resists change. And when it does change, it only through the same processes that made it what it is: The slow, often agonizing accumulation of tiny adjustments, often painfully achieved, with results that are always unsatisfying.
In other parts of the world, a persistent refusal to accept this is not necessary an immediate problem. In places like the United Nations, it is positively an asset. But in the Middle East, indeed anywhere brute realities are inescapable and the willingness to acknowledge and deal with them literally a matter of life and death, it takes its toll very quickly. Israelis have been broken by the world more than a few times, and as a result, they have become strong at the broken places. As Hemingway pointed out, however, "those that will not break it kills." Judging by the degree to which a fervent belief in its own transcendent capacity to effortlessly change the world has typified the Obama phenomenon from its origins, and the results this has had in the Middle East, there seems to be a strong possibility that, in the end, his administration may well be counted among the casualties.
Benjamin Kerstein is Senior Writer for The New Ledger.