July 20, 2012
Israel Factor: A less prepared Obama is a better Obama
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 But it foundered ultimately on his political and tactical misjudgments, on a lack of trusted relationships and on an outdated view of a conflict that many of his closest advisers imparted to him.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.