This week US President Barack Obama made his first Middle East visit of his second term in office. It was also his first trip to Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory (OPT) since coming into office in 2008. The purpose of the trip was to warm chilled relations with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, as well as to reiterate the US position towards Iran’s nuclear power ambitions. In many ways, the trip signaled Obama’s retreat from the region rather than the first step in an intensified approach to it. Obama’s “Listening Tour” sought to strengthen his political leverage in the United States by appeasing a domestic constituency, and especially an obstructive Congress—which has attempted to use Obama’s earliest interventions in the conflict as a political opportunity. Between 2010 and 2011, for example, the US Congress—together with the Israel Lobby—twice challenged Obama on his policy positions towards Israel: first when he sought a settlement freeze; and second when he called for the establishment of two states based on the 1967 borders. Not only did members of Congress line up to chide Obama on the floor of the US House of Representatives for treating its “most unique ally” unfairly, but they gave Israel’s Netanyahu twenty-nine standing ovations during his 2011 address in comparison to the twenty-five they gave their president during his State of the Union Address.
Obama’s tour was largely symbolic, and lacked any substantive changes with regards to the region. During his speech to Israeli students, Obama all but wiped his hands clean of US responsibility of the conflict by insisting that Israelis must pressure their leaders to make the changes they want to see in the region. He continued that establishing a Palestinian state is necessary to preserve Israel’s Jewish majority and “democratic” character, that doing so is a matter of justice for the Palestinians, and that this is indeed possible. Obama did not mention any obligations that Israel had regarding complying with international law or human rights norms, nor did he use US influence as Israel’s benefactor to pressure it to take certain steps that would benefit US interests in the region. Before he left for Jordan, Obama facilitated an apology from Netanyahu to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan for the murder of nine Turkish civilians on the Mavi Marmara in 2010. Erdogan accepted the apology, and the two countries have indicated that they will take steps to rehabilitate their diplomatic relations.
On Saturday morning, Jadaliyya co-editor Noura Erakat joined Rashid Khalidi, Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies at Columbia University and author of the just-released Brokers of Deceit: How the U.S. Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East on MSNBC’s “Up With Chris Hayes” to discuss Obama’s Middle East visit. They program also included Ann Lewis, former political adviser to presidential candidate Hilary Clinton, Jeremy Ben-Ami, Executive Director of J Street, and Matt Duss, Policy Analyst and Director of Middle East Progress at the Center for American Progress. The hour-long program discusses the implications of Obama’s visit to the region upon the Israel-Palestinian peace process, as well as the significance of a dynamic Middle East still experiencing the Arab uprisings and Iran’s ongoing ambitions for nuclear capability.