Why Obama's Mideast Policy Will Work

by Steven L. Spiegel

Steven L. Spiegel, Professor of Political Science at UCLA and National Scholar at IPF, is among the world's foremost experts on American foreign policy in the Middle East. He is the Director of the Center for Middle East Development (CMED) at UCLA and of Track II Middle East programs at the University of California’s Institute on Global Conflict and Cooperation. As a National Scholar of Israel Policy Forum, Dr. Spiegel provides policy direction and expertise, and also writes frequent analyses of the latest developments in Arab-Israeli relations.

I am sick and tired of hearing about how Obama is "not good for the Jews," or, as a friend of mine put it recently, "everyone who voted for him should be ashamed." If looking for solutions to Israel's toughest problems -- Iran and the Mideast peace process -- and trying to fix both is somehow bad for Israel, then I'm not sure what is good.

President George W. Bush placed Iran on the "axis of evil" with North Korea and Iraq, and then settled into an attempt to isolate Iran with tough rhetoric and mild sanctions. While he talked, Iran grew stronger in the region and continued building the potential for a nuclear force. It was the United States that was left without the intimate cooperation of its allies. Is this the policy the critics want President Barack Obama to pursue?

The president has wisely reversed course, pursuing an activist and even aggressive policy to stop the nuclear force by diplomacy if possible and by tough sanctions if necessary. He has worked hard to gain the confidence of allies, and has improved relations with Russia by altering Bush's policy of long-range missiles in Eastern Europe. Moscow is critical for making sanctions more effective. And when Tehran lied about its newly discovered nuclear facility, Obama deftly pounced, announcing the true nature of the Iranian installation and putting the Iranians on the proverbial "ropes" for the first time in years.

It did not take long for the Iranians to change their tune. At a meeting in Geneva on Oct. 1, the United States for the first time joined the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council (Russia, China, Britain and France) plus Germany in a long-planned meeting with a high-level Iranian delegation to discuss Iran's nuclear ambitions. The outcome was startling: Iran agreed to expanded inspections of its nuclear facilities, especially the new site. It also accepted the idea of sending most of its declared enriched uranium to Russia and France to be turned into nuclear fuel for a small Iranian reactor that produces medical isotopes. If the Iranian government was actually to make good on these promises, and assuming Iran does not have other undiscovered facilities and additional fuel, this would constitute a major achievement in at least delaying the Iranian development of nuclear weapons.

The president took no chances. He did not announce a major breakthrough, but instead called the talks "constructive" and warned Iran yet again that if it did not cooperate and did not fulfill its new commitments, tough sanctions (such as escalating limits on Iranian banks abroad or restricting the export of refined oil to Iran) would be instituted. These types of steps would seriously weaken the Iranian economy and would threaten Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's administration at a time when it is already under attack from those of its citizens who believe the Iranian president was not actually elected.

The critics are arguing that Iran cannot be trusted, and Obama agrees. Indeed, he is talking about the kinds of sanctions conservatives have advocated for years. Many of the critics simply want a military attack, because they say we can never be sure even if Iran were to fulfill its new commitments, which they doubt, that we would know whether Iran has more hidden nuclear sites. But that argument is contradictory. If we don't know where all the sites are, how do we bomb them? Besides, most experts, including Defense Secretary Robert Gates, believe that a military attack, which Obama has not taken off the table, would not delay an Iranian nuclear force for more than three years and would come at a high cost to the United States.

Instead, Obama's actions have thrown the Iranians on the defensive, and demonstrated that he is capable of challenging them directly. Israel is quietly supporting his efforts. Only time can tell whether he will succeed, but he provides a refreshing hope for the first time that an innovative American policy has a chance of stalling the Iranian nuclear march. It is now the United States, not Iran, that is on the offensive, and it is noteworthy that the president has significant international support for his policies -- something George W. Bush found impossible to achieve.

It's the same story when we turn to Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. Bush was unable to advance the Arab-Israeli peace process during his presidency. Indeed, he made matters worse when, against Israeli and Palestinian advice, he insisted on the Palestinian election in January 2006, which resulted in a Hamas victory.

Obama immediately began to make clear that his administration would actively support Arab-Israeli peace when he announced on his first full day in office that former Sen. George Mitchell would be his Mideast envoy. The Obama team tried over the last eight months to get Israel to freeze settlements, and the Palestinians to enhance security and lessen incitement against Israel. For the first time, an American president demanded that the Arab states take confidence-building measures in response to Israel's concessions without waiting for final treaties to be signed. As Obama admitted when he met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, not all of these steps were taken, but there was progress on each of the issues nonetheless.

Freezing settlement construction does not impede Israeli security. The president was not calling for dismantling any settlements. He was only looking for an Israeli confidence-building measure, and, of course, settlement construction can be unfrozen if talks go poorly. At this time, when it is so critical to gain the involvement of Arab regimes in the confrontation with Iran, positive steps from Israel can enhance the atmosphere for cooperation against Tehran's interests and actions.

In any case, at the U.N. General Assembly, on the two key issues, Obama stood with Israel. He supported Netanyahu's idea of relaunching negotiations "without preconditions," and, even more important, he endorsed the idea of Israel as a "Jewish state," the Israeli prime minister's top priority in negotiations. Think about it: If Israel will be recognized as a Jewish state, the idea of settling massive numbers of Palestinian refugees in pre-1967 Israel is simply closed.

It is little wonder, then, that it was Netanyahu, not Abbas, who left satisfied with what had happened in New York. The Obama team's tough stand in pressuring the Palestinians into delaying for six months the U.N. Human Rights Council adoption of the dangerous Goldstone report is another indication of how close American and Israeli policy really is. From the Arab perspective, here was a president who held out a stronger extended hand than his recent predecessors, but who took just as sturdy a stand behind Israel as any of them, while demanding stronger concessions from Arab states during negotiations than any president in American history.

The facts speak for themselves. Anyone concerned with Israel's survival as a Jewish state should stop criticizing Obama's policies.

This article was post published on Los Angeles Jewish Journal and the Huffington Post.

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