Essays on American politics and foreign policy

By Donald E. Nuechterlein

Donald Nuechterlein is a political scientist and writer who resides near Charlottesville, Virginia. He is the author of numerous books on American politics and foreign policy, including

  • Defiant Superpower: The New American Hegemony, 2005
  • America Recommitted: A Superpower Assesses its Role in a Turbulent World, 2000
  • A Cold War Odyssey, 1997


Donald Nuechterlein


JUNE 2009

President Obama had two major objectives when he traveled to Saudi Arabia and Egypt two weeks ago: to improve America's image with the Muslim countries after its sharp decline over the past seven years, and to pressure Israel's hard-line government to stop what Obama called "illegitimate" settlement building in the West Bank territories. He decided to press these objectives in order to deal effectively with a crucial strategic threat to Middle East peace: Iran's plan to become a nuclear power.

Reports from the Arab countries suggest that Obama achieved his first objective, restoring America's image in the Muslim world. On the second objective, however, we will wait some months to know if he can persuade Israel's prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, to change his policy on settlements expansion and his opposition to a Palestinian state.

Obama joins five previous presidents who sought to bring peace to Palestine.

Richard Nixon in 1973 intervened diplomatically to stop an Israeli-Egyptian war that threatened to engulf the entire Middle East. In 1978 Jimmy Carter finally succeeded in brokering a peace agreement between Israel and Egypt, but it did not limit Israel's building of new settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. Ronald Reagan sent Marines to Lebanon in 1982 to stop Israel's invasion and then urged Israel to "trade land for peace. " Bill Clinton and George Bush tried, but failed to negotiate a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians.

What are the prospects that Obama will achieve peace with security in the Middle East?

Two-state solution in Palestine

Many experts think this is the most critical foreign policy issue facing the Obama administration because of its effect on other key issues. Creation of a state for the Palestinians, which Israel approved as part of the 1993 Oslo Accords, was shelved in 1996 when elections enabled Benjamin Netanyahu to become prime minister. He has now returned to power and wants to continue expanding Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

Barack Obama recognizes that gaining diplomatic support from Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and other Arab states for confronting Iran's Islamic regime on the nuclear issue depends on resolving the Palestinian homeland problem. This entails persuading Israel that it must stop expansion of settlements, ease its blockade of Gaza where a million and a half Palestinians live in a virtual prison, and negotiate a two-state solution to the Palestinians.

Obama also recognizes that Netanyahu will resist easing the blockade of Gaza until its Hamas-led government stops rocket attacks on Israel territory, recognizes the state of Israel, and agrees to security guarantees of its borders.

Obama knows that a halt to Jewish settlement expansion is the key test of Israel's intentions. After meeting with Netanyahu at the White House on May l8, the president told reporters:

"I shared with the prime minister the fact that under the roadmap and Annapolis {two earlier agreements}, there's a clear understanding that we have to make progress on settlements. Settlements have to be stopped in order for us to move forward. That's a difficult issue. I recognize that, but it's an important one and it has to be addressed. " (White House, May 18)

In his June 4 address at Cairo University, the president was even more outspoken in telling Israel's government that it must stop all construction in the West Bank.

Dealing with Iran

Israel's highest foreign policy priority is stopping Iran's acquisition of nuclear weapons, and its officials have signaled an intention to bomb its nuclear facilities unless Tehran halts the program. Most U.S. experts think this is not feasible without U.S. support.

During their May 18 meeting, Netanyahu asked Obama to resolve the Iran nuclear threat before pressing him on the Palestinian homeland issue. Obama replied that, although he would expect progress in negotiations with Iran by year's end, he was not willing to give this a higher priority than achieving a two-state solution for the Palestinians. "The Palestinian-Israeli peace track is critical," the president said, to "realign interests in the region in a constructive way. "

Iran's crucial presidential elections June 12 may determine whether the nuclear weapons issue can be negotiated satisfactorily. Administration officials hope that talks with Iranian leaders will resolve the issue, but they are persuaded that progress will not be made until Israel stops settlement construction and resumes negotiations with the Palestinians on terms of a final settlement that recognizes a Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.

Obama's confrontation with Netanyahu recalls an earlier Israeli visit to the White House, in May 2002, by then prime minister Ariel Sharon. In that meeting, Sharon convinced George W. Bush, who was starting a Persian Gulf military build-up to oust Saddam Hussein, that he should put off discussion of statehood for Palestinians until they replaced Yasser Arafat and with a more pliable leader. Subsequent Palestinian elections in 2006 brought to power Hamas, an anti-Israel party, and the Bush administration refused to deal with its leaders.

Barack Obama is embarked on a bold and risky quest to alter the political landscape in the Middle East. The outcome could be peace in Palestine. But only confirmed optimists might suggest that the peace process will be completed in the next two years.

File last modified on Wednesday, 10-JUN-2009 8:49 PM EST

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