Saturday, November 24, 2012

Obama changes course between courses

For a time there, it looked like business as usual in the Middle East. Barack Obama had made his ''pivot'' to Asia and it would be up to the parties slaughtering each other, oppressors and oppressed, to ask themselves and each other the Sarah Palin question: "How's that hopey-changey stuff working out for ya?"

Despite the untidy tumult of the Arab Spring, Washington had concluded there was insufficient hope to effect meaningful change.

Syria was, and remains, too difficult for Washington to get stuck in, as it did in Libya.

And when Obama's attention could be dragged away from his Asia summitry last week, you could hear the irritation in his demand for … for what in the latest Gaza war?

He wanted a ''de-escalation''. And in a too-simplistic dismissal of more than 60 years of punishing cyclical violence and dispossession, one of his spokesmen declared that rockets from Gaza into Israel were the ''root cause'' of the violence.

The idea seemed to be that if the parties would do the decent thing and just step back from the brink, all could revert to their part in the business of managing Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories, what some Israelis refer to as the necessary but mindless task of ''mowing the grass''.

Conscious of the caveat that only a mug sitting down to breakfast predicts what might happen by lunchtime in the Middle East, we can leave the question of winners and losers in this round to others.

But in examining the past 10 days, it is instructive to look at yet another drama in which Israel focused on the tactical over the strategic: too much mowing and not enough consideration of the garden's overall design.

Consider the dynamic of a couple of weeks ago. Sure, the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, looked a bit silly after openly backing the losing candidate in the US presidential election. But in victory, it seemed that Obama was in no rush to punish him.

And in the region, Netanyahu might have taken comfort from Washington's failure to click with key figures in the Muslim Brotherhood, the ascendant political force in the region as a result of the Arab Spring, most critically among them, Egypt's new President Mohammed Mursi.

As a product of the Islamist Brotherhood, Mursi's election victory was a curve ball for the Americans, particularly in terms of what he might do with Cairo's US-sponsored peace treaty with Israel. In September, he needed a jab in the ribs from Obama to get on the right song sheet over demonstrations outside the US embassy over an anti-Islamic video.

But somewhere between main course and dessert at a diplomatic dinner in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, Obama called Mursi, opening an intense round of telephone diplomacy that, ultimately, led to Wednesday's ceasefire in Gaza.

What was exceptional here was the divide that Obama leapt so nimbly. And that his staffers wanted to make it known.

All of a sudden, a President who had barely settled into his Asian pivot was re-pivoting back to the Middle East, apparently in the belief that his new best friend Mursi was the kind of guy who, as an intermediary, might be able to advance peace beyond a Gaza ceasefire.

Think about that: we're talking about a US President's comfort with an Islamist, the kind of potential peace partner that Washington had spurned for decades.

Note that, on arriving in the region, Hillary Clinton initially worked from the old script. She would have nothing to do with the Islamist Hamas movement, and wasted valuable time in careering off to Ramallah to talk to the man least able to affect the course of events, Mahmoud Abbas, the failing head of the failed US effort to craft a secular and moderate governing entity, the Palestinian Authority.

But the strangest things can happen when you sit down to talk, without blinkers, to those that you have refused to acknowledge - yes?

After six phone calls in a few days, The New York Times reported: "Mr Obama told aides he was impressed with the Egyptian leader's pragmatic confidence.

''He sensed an engineer's precision with surprisingly little ideology. Most important, Mr Obama told aides that he considered Mr Mursi a straight shooter who delivered on what he promised and did not promise what he could not deliver.

"'The thing that appealed to the President was how practical the conversations were - here's the state of play, here are the issues we're concerned about,' said a senior administration official … 'This was somebody focused on solving problems.'"

This ''somebody'' is now infinitely better placed than Israel would like to chaperone Obama through the regional quicksand. Aided by US allies Turkey and Qatar, both of them key regional players who understand the Islamist world and who are sympathetic to the Palestinians, Mursi may have won an opportunity to steer Washington towards a more realistic understanding of Palestinian nationalism and the Islamist world.

Do not expect too much too soon. "It really is something with the potential to establish a new basis for diplomacy in the region," Middle East expert Tamara Cofman Wittes, who recently shifted from the Obama administration to the Brookings Institution, told reporters, before adding: "It's just potential, but it's particularly impressive potential."

And for any of it to be realised, the Palestinians and Hamas have to overcome their own internal divisions - Abbas's secular Fatah movement - and Hamas needs to get beyond the tribal notion that winner takes all; and Hamas needs to guard against what is being reported as an internal divide between the movement's exiled leadership, which is pinning its hopes on support from Egypt, Turkey and Cairo, and the movement's Gaza leadership which does not want to abandon long-standing ties to Syria and Iran.

Repeat: do not expect too much too soon.

But in the NYT account of the Obama-Mursi love-in, it was hard not to see shades of an encounter I had with a retired Jordanian general in the months after Obama's first election victory. Singing his praises for the new President, the old army man finished on a crescendo: "You don't notice any more that he's black."

Such was the surprise, even naivete, of his staffers in Obama's discovery that a devout Muslim is capable of logical and rational thought, they might have concluded their paeans for Mursi with: "You don't notice any more that he's Arab … or Islamist."

Paul McGeough -


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Right to Defend itself

Israel has always cried 'holocaust' tears to the world while singing the old tune of "Defending itself and its citizens". How do they do it? By banning or killing international journalists by bribing their supportive governments. Palestine is destroyed as a State so is Gaza. Meanwhile the "chronically suffering Israel" has developed to a point it does not need Uncle Sam anymore, see their infrastructure, see their military development up to nuclear programs... and they are the eternal "poor" in need. -- --