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Obama, Israel and the Middle East dilemma

President Obama is spending his post-bin Laden political capital in the Middle East. AAP

President Barack Obama has made a number of speeches focusing on events in the Middle East in recent weeks.

Obama used a landmark speech regarding the uprisings in the Arab world to call on Israel to change its position when negotiating with the Palestinians to recognise the pre-1967 war borders as the starting point for any land deal.

He then addressed the highly influential American Israel Public Affairs Committee in what many commentators viewed as an attempt to assuage anger among supporters of Israel that his Middle East policy left that country at risk.

Did Obama use the AIPAC speech to attempt to neutralise concerns arising from his recent Middle East speech and was he successful?

The answer to the first part of the question is yes. It is inescapable that he needed a bit of a PR exercise after that speech.

He’s also working from a low base in that he has been viewed with scepticism by segments of the pro-Israeli community in the United States.

In terms of whether it has been successful, it was a speech designed primarily for domestic political purposes in the lead up to the 2012 election.

He is worried about constituencies in key states that he needs to ensure continue voting Democrat, those moderate Jewish communities in states like Florida and Nevada and Arizona which are swing states during presidential elections.

There has been an inbuilt concern or scepticism about Obama’s support for Israel based on a whole variety of factors and I think this speech was an effort to try and reassure that community that there is nothing too revolutionary about what he put forth in that speech a few days ago.

Who are the American pro-Israel community, or lobby?

It is a pretty broad church. It starts with a foreign policy realist section which views Israel as an important strategic ally in the region, purely in non-ideological terms.

Israel is in a strategically vital area and we can rely on that alliance as we have very similar interests and that is a group that is not so much a voting demographic but an alliance that crosses party lines at decision making level.

Outside of that there are groups who have this ideological affiliation like the Christian Zionist set of movements which for a variety of reasons see Israel as not just, or even, strategically important, but see something symbolic.

They want the United States to support this entity for what it represents, for the resonance it has for theological reasons in the millenarian version of Christianity that is characteristic of much US Christian belief.

There is also those who see Israel as a democracy in an area that lacks such countries and believe that if the US is going to be genuine in the spread of democracy it should be supporting like countries.

Then there are those who sympathise with Israel over the issue of terrorism and security.

They see the United States being targeted by terrorism on 9/11 and before and subsequently which is what they see as a similar type of terrorism to what Israel faces, the two countries being on the same page in that fight.

Then of course there are those within the Jewish community who have personal or ideological links to Israel

Has AIPAC lost some of its influence in the Obama era?

I think so but I think it more important to look at that through the lens not of AIPAC under the Obama administration but it being exceptional under the Bush administration.

The links between AIPAC and the upper echelons of the National Security Council, the State Department and so on were clear and influential under the Bush administration.

The Obama administration has strong links with the Jewish community through his former chief of staff Rahm Emanuel who served in the Israel Defence Forces, there are links outside AIPAC and I think AIPAC has returned to the status it had under Clinton.

One could say it is even more influential now than it was under the first Bush administration where George HW Bush had much more clear and direct ties with Arab states, particularly the Saudi royal family through his exploits in the oil industry and his time as head of the CIA.

The Republicans have traditionally been closer to the Arab states through that link to the oil industry and the Democrats closer to Israel and the exception in that was the second Bush administration.

Did the killing of Osama bin Laden give Obama political capital he is now using on the difficult Middle East issue?

Certainly. I think the timing is not a coincidence. Obama is spending a great deal of that capital in this instance

Israel is deeply concerned about what is happening in the Arab world now in terms of the uprisings and Obama had to engage with Israel and this issue in some respect soon.

It was fortunate that he had the political capital to spend [from the killing of Bin Laden] within this window to do it.

I think he also trying to right the ship after the pretty disastrous effort of engaging with the Israel/Palestine issue with Vice President Joe Biden, Senator George Mitchell and Secretary for State Hilary Clinton when the US efforts were essentially shut down in no uncertain terms by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

Would it be fair to say that was a humiliation for Obama?

I don’t think that is overstating it. The manner in which the United States tried, historically having been this country that has been able to wield influence over Israel like no other, to move in and moderate settlement construction and was then essentially told to go away was humiliating in diplomatic terms.

There is significance in the timing of what Obama is doing now and he is perhaps able to get some sort of leverage over Israel to at least recognise the 1967 borders as a starting point.

It is also comes on the back of the move by Fatah, and potentially Fatah and Hamas, to go to the UN in September for a unilateral declaration of statehood. There is a time constraint there that Obama needs to act under.

Events are moving fast in the Middle East. Is there a danger that Israel could be caught on the wrong side of history?

He is trying to do Israel a service. There has been a reaction of shock that has almost been immobilising the Israeli government in reaction to what is happening in the Arab world because while the status quo wasn’t one of overwhelming peace and acceptance of Israel as a legitimate regional actor, there was a status quo that successive Israeli administrations understood.

There were people they could talk to and operate through, there were known entities. Now they are confronting a situation that is unknown and in security terms, that is the worst possible situation.

The murmurs we are getting out the transitional administration in Cairo is that there is an effort to open ties with Hamas. This new administration doesn’t seem to be as pathologically afraid of Hamas as the Mubarak administration was as regards Hamas being an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood.

On one hand Obama is striking back a bit because of the humiliation of the last round of negotiations but on the other hand he is trying to encourage Israel to deal with this new reality.

Even if countries like Egypt and Syria introduce regimes openly hostile to Israel, will we see large scale conflict in the area? Isn’t Israel’s military superiority overwhelming?

You can never rule anything out but I would could as close I can to ruling it out.

It is not likely that Israel is going to be confronting countries that are going to reopening conflict but they may not be as consistent or as reliable a partner as they were before.

Egypt has said it will reopen the Rafah border crossing and it or other countries may move to recognise the unilateral declaration of statehood by the Palestinians in September.

That is deeply troubling for both sides of the political spectrum in Israel particularly for the right, because the right in Israel do run hard in domestic terms on the security issue. For them it is the flagship issue.

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