Hands Untied

US President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a phone call from his hotel suite in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 19 November 2012. Photo by AFP

US President Barack Obama talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a phone call from his hotel suite in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, on 19 November 2012. Photo by AFP

Now that US President Barak Obama has earned a second term, so goes a canned Beltway conceit, he may pursue policy objectives unfettered by the restraints of electoral politics. Thus everything from tax reform to a national high-speed rail grid might be legislated over the next four years.

Some even suggest that the unbound Obama may reapply himself to the challenge of a comprehensive Middle East peace. A recent story in the New York Times implies that the president, having successfully brokered a resolution to the Gaza conflict with Egyptian leader Mohammed Morsi, may wager his authority on a prize that has eluded his predecessors since the creation of Israel. Obama, according to the Times, regards Morsi as a potential partner “who might help make progress in the Middle East beyond the current crisis in Gaza.”

We've been down this primrose path. Presidents are no less vulnerable to the destructive caprice of global affairs in their second terms as they are in their maiden four years. Bill Clinton mounted a doomed bid for Israeli–Palestinian peace in his second term just like William Rogers, secretary of state to Richard Nixon, despaired helplessly as his peace plan was blocked by Israeli proxies in Congress.

In Istanbul this week I had the pleasure of meeting with Geoffrey Aronson, a director at the Foundation for Middle East Peace in Washington, D.C. He is a respected Middle East expert with years of experience navigating the currents of Washington as well as the riptides of Arab–Israeli affairs. For years he and his pro-peace tribe have labored for a regional settlement, only to be thwarted by obstructionists on Capitol Hill and in Jerusalem. Over a bottle of wine at the home of a mutual friend, I mooted the inevitable question: “Is there any reason to believe that a re-elected Obama . . . ” Our guest scolded: "No."

The president, said the well-informed Aronson, is bored by the Middle East. Not only that, he knuckled under to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a battle of wills over Jewish settlements in the West Bank, the core obstacle to regional peace. Rather than shaming a feckless Congress into opposing Israeli’s imperial project, he said, the president simply lost his stomach for the fight.

“Once you blink, no one will stand by you again,” Aronson told us. Aronson is probably right. Obama may claim a mandate from his campaign triumph, but even the most resounding ovations—to say nothing of moral authority—are not enough to cow the spoilers into line for a sustainable Middle East peace. He would have to wage a relentless campaign of persuasion, coercion and brinkmanship—threatening Israel with an indefinite suspension of military exchanges and aid would be a compelling first step—that would crowd out other policy imperatives.

It is telling that Obama had to interrupt his tour of Asia, which he has grandly celebrated as America’s new foreign policy focus, to deal with the Gaza crisis. Let's hope his rapport with Morsi may become the touchstone for higher ambitions. For a leader of an ailing superpower with dwindling resources at its disposal, however, his response to Middle Eastern affairs is likely to become increasingly reactive and grudging.

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