As tensions mount in the coming hours and
days with the Israeli troops and tanks advancing
toward Gaza menacingly, United States President
Barack Obama begins to realize that he has a
Gaza becomes the litmus
test of what he can claim to be as a statesman and
what he cannot be in political reality.
For Obama, there is no running away from
the reality that he has been hiding his head
ostrich-like from the day he left Cairo in 2009
after making a magnificent speech there on the
The events of the
past week in Gaza underscore that unless he
musters the political courage - and integrity as a
statesman - to address the Palestinian problem,
all his talk of a transformative
agenda for the Middle
East remains sheer baloney.
his lop-sided priorities in the Middle East are
getting exposure. In essence, he ends up being
seen as cooking up tales about Syria and Iran and
shying away from the one issue that can make all
the difference for America's discourse with the
The Israeli Prime Minister
Benjamin Netanyahu has exposed Obama and is
forcing a reset of their mutual equations even
before the US president gets started on his second
term in the White House.
Obama can always
take shelter behind mellifluous rhetoric and has
no adverse domestic public opinion to grapple
with. Nor is he being called upon by his European
allies to be accountable.
in the wheel The paradox is that the
crisis in Gaza had to erupt just when things were
looking up for a possible US-Egyptian reset,
including a joint enterprise by the two countries
to give a decisive push for "regime change" in
A technical team from the
International Monetary Fund (IMF) has been in
Cairo for the past fortnight to negotiate a US$4.8
billion loan that Egypt has sought to shore up
finances. Even as the Israeli jets kept pounding
Gaza relentlessly and Hamas beseeched Egyptian
president Mohamed Morsi for help, the IMF
announced on Wednesday, "The mission will remain
in Cairo for a few more days to continue work and
build on the good progress already made."
The IMF usually expects that governments
take actual measures as per an agreed economic
reform plan before signing off on loans, but Morsi
knows exceptions can always be made, and it is
Washington who decides.
Obama's viewpoint, the flare-up in Gaza comes at a
most awkward moment for his best-laid scheme for
Syria in the coming months. After much effort
spread over five agonizing days in Doha, the
former US ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, and
the former Syrian parliamentarian Riad Self
somehow managed to cobble together a Syrian
National Coalition (SNC) over the weekend.
Many a time it seemed Ford would fail to
pull the rabbit out of the hat, and the Qatari
hosts had to literally step in and blackmail some
of the key figures in the Syrian opposition groups
before they'd fall in line with the script Ford
brought from Washington.
The urgency was
clearly there. The formation of the SNC was a
prerequisite for the forthcoming meeting of
"Friends of Syria" in Tokyo where the
"international community" would accord recognition
to the Syrian opposition.
Morsi has been
mollified, as Syria's Brothers have been given the
lead role within the SNC. Also, Qatar and Turkey
each extended US$2 billion as aid for Morsi's
government. The game plan is to have the SNC
headquartered in Cairo. The Turkish Foreign
Minister Ahmet Davutoglu visited Cairo on
Wednesday and talked things over with Morsi as to
what is expected of him while Obama shifts gear on
his transformative agenda on Syria.
Therefore, Netanyahu has literally thrown
a spanner in the wheel and is all but acting as a
spoilsport. The crisis over Gaza takes the focus
away from the SNC and highlights all over again
that the real battle line in the Muslim Middle
East ought to be not on Syria at this juncture but
instead on the Palestinian problem.
However, where Netanyahu would have
intentionally hit Obama hardest is in terms of the
latter's credibility to enter into one-on-one
negotiations with the Iranian leadership. In his
very first press conference on Wednesday after his
magnificent election victory, Obama declared that
he intended to "make a push in the coming months
to see if we can open up a dialogue" with Tehran
"to see if we can get this thing [nuclear issue]
Obama was manifestly
conciliatory and claimed he wouldn't stand on
"diplomatic niceties or protocol" and "if Iran is
serious about wanting to resolve this, they'll be
in a position to resolve it."
Now, if the
Israeli troops march into Gaza, Obama will be seen
in the entire Arab world as someone who makes
empty promises. It suits Netanyahu at this point
to be seen as calling the shots in the Middle
East, since his alliance with Yisrael Beiteinu
(Avigdor Lieberman's party) stands to gain in
January's parliamentary elections. The hardline
grouping panders to the prevailing popular mood in
Israel in its championing of "Greater Israel".
An engrossing duel Clearly,
Obama has been compelled to fall back on the
one-sided US policy of putting all the blame on
Hamas for triggering the present crisis and by
justifying Israel's "right to defend".
More fundamentally, however, this also has
the potential to become an Obama-Netanyahu duel,
which will impact the uncertain alchemy of their
relationship through the US president's second
Obama may not like it that Netanyahu
has hustled him, but then, as a realist he also
has to factor in that the Republican-controlled
House of Representatives in the US Congress will
not brook anything other than 100% support to
Israel in the present crisis.
as well say goodbye to his hopes to forge a
consensus in the United States Congress to advance
a second-term agenda that would go into the making
of his presidential legacy - fiscal cliff, tax
reform, immigration, energy and climate change,
disarmament, etc - if he fails to pass the litmus
test on support to Israel.
But this is
exactly where he is going to run into a serious
problem with Tehran. The point is, the centrality
of the Palestinian problem in the regional
policies of the Islamic regime in Tehran is not
often fully grasped when facile conclusions are
drawn that what motivates that country would be
solely its (legitimate) claim to be accommodated
as a regional power.
The regime in Tehran,
like most of the Muslim world, has great sympathy
for the Palestinians and finds the suppression in
Gaza appalling and genuinely unacceptable.
Yet, all that Obama can do today is to
urge Morsi to rein in Hamas. Suffice to say, Obama
is making a grievous error by once again
instinctively taking the pragmatic route of being
seen walking shoulder-to-shoulder with Israel.
Influential sections within the Iranian
establishment all along alleged that Obama is far
too weak to negotiate meaningfully with Tehran on
the nuclear issue. Besides, Tehran also harbors
the suspicion that the real US agenda is to weaken
Iran by imposing a Taif-model accord (as in
Lebanon and Iraq) on Syria (which also enables
Israel to regain its regional dominance.)
That is to say, Netanyahu may have
smothered for the present whatever degree of
optimism Obama generated regarding direct talks
between the US and Iran. All in all, therefore,
Obama finds himself on a spot even before his
second term gets under way. Netanyahu has turned
the tables on him for the slights administered by
Washington in recent months.
There is no
doubt that in one brilliant swipe Netanyahu has
brought to the surface the profound contradictions
in the US strategy on the Middle East question.
Ambassador M K Bhadrakumar was a
career diplomat in the Indian Foreign Service. His
assignments included the Soviet Union, South
Korea, Sri Lanka, Germany, Afghanistan, Pakistan,
Uzbekistan, Kuwait and Turkey.
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