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Israel Factor: A less prepared Obama is a better Obama

by Shmuel Rosner

July 20, 2012 | 7:46 am

President Barack Obama delivers a speech in the Grand Hall of Cairo University on June 4, 2009 (Photo: Reuters)

A couple of days ago, the Washington Post devoted a long and ‎detailed story to a reality we are all familiar with: Obama’s failure to ‎forge Israeli-Palestinian peace. ‎

‎“The way Obama managed the Israeli-Palestinian issue exhibited many ‎of the hallmarks that have defined his first term”, Scott Wilson wrote. ‎‎“It began with a bid for historic change. But it foundered ultimately on ‎his political and tactical misjudgments, on a lack of trusted ‎relationships and on an outdated view of a conflict that many of his ‎closest advisers imparted to him. And those advisers - veterans of the ‎Middle East peace issue - clashed among themselves over tactics and ‎turf”.‎

In the July Israel Factor, our monthly survey of 10 Israeli experts, there ‎were several questions compatible with Wilson’s account. In question ‎number 2, where we asked our experts to “rate the Obama ‎administration’s handling of the following Middle East developments in ‎recent months” – and give the administration a mark from 1 to 10 - the ‎Israeli-Palestinian peace process scores last of all issues presented: 4 ‎out of 10. ‎

At school a 4 means an F. Total failure. Even Obama himself would be ‎hard pressed to dispute such conclusion. It never handled the peace ‎process very well, and in “recent months” it didn’t “handle” it at all – ‎there was just nothing to handle. ‎

The table of ranked topics following question number 2 is an ‎interesting table. All in all, the panel doesn’t see Obama as a president ‎with great foreign policy achievements. But it also doesn’t see him as a ‎failure on most issues. His “overall policy vis-à-vis Israel” gets a 6.56 ‎out of 10. That’s not too bad for a president who is constantly haunted ‎by his battles – true and imaginary – with the current Israeli ‎government. We only presented the panel with six topics to rank: ‎Overall Middle East policy, unrest and elections in Egypt, Iran’s nuclear ‎program, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, unrest in Syria, overall ‎policy towards Israel. And here’s an interesting thing I’ve noticed as I ‎was crunching the numbers: the less Obama was prepared, the better ‎the panel ranked him.‎

Consider this: Obama came into office knowing full well what his goal ‎was on the peace process. The result: failure, and low ranking. He came ‎into office not knowing that Egypt was about to collapse. The result: ‎pretty satisfying, as far as our panel can judge. Not that Israel can claim to be ‎calm about or satisfied by recent developments in Egypt – not at all. But the ‎panel doesn’t blame Obama for the Egyptian turmoil, nor does it think ‎his policies were outrageously unreasonable. Obama gets a 6.22 on ‎Egypt, with just two panelists giving him less than a 6. ‎

Or consider Syria. Again, Obama came into office knowing quite well ‎what he was going to do. His failure on the Israeli-Palestinian front ‎made Syria pale in comparison, but Obama started his term with a firm ‎belief in engaging Syria and advancing the peace process between ‎Damascus and Jerusalem. He sent his emissaries to sit with Assad, and ‎was very slow to condemn and abandon the Assad regime (remember ‎Hilary Clinton’s “Assad is a reformer” story line?). Unsurprisingly, our ‎panel is not impressed: 5.33 is the verdict. Not as bad as Palestine, not ‎nearly as OK as Egypt. ‎

The two top marks are the two most interesting instances, though. 6.56 on ‎policy vis-à-vis Israel, 6.44 on Iran’s nuclear program. Where’s the ‎similarity between the two? In both cases the White House started with ‎a policy that could not possibly work, but was agile enough to dump it ‎and come up with a new one. In the case of Iran – the severest pressure ‎ever applied on Tehran’s leaders; in the case of Israel – military and ‎diplomatic support that make all questions related to friendliness seem ‎irrelevant (at least for the time being). ‎

In short, where there was a set policy that didn’t quite work (Palestine, ‎Syria, and the “Middle East” in general – remember reconciliation?), the ‎marks are relatively lower. Where Obama was caught by surprise and ‎reasonably maneuvered (Egypt) it gets better. And where Obama ‎reversed his preset but unworkable policies (Iran, Israel), he gets his ‎highest marks from the panel. There’s a lesson here one should keep in mind ‎come November.‎

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