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November 20, 2012, Tuesday

Bitter lesson for Obama

A bitter lesson was delivered to President Barack Obama just as he was in the midst of the euphoria from his election victory.

With an almost “copy and paste” repetition of late 2008, he is once more being haunted by a key dilemma: Can the US stay out of the Arab-Israeli conflict and pursue with success a non-intervention policy in the Middle East?

These are intense and interesting days. Surely, we shall find out more in the depths of the demonic developments of shelling and counter-shelling between Gaza and Israel, when the right time comes. I am already rather suspicious that the devastation and misery of the last days, which threatens to develop into a ground war, cannot be contained in a simple military confrontation.

Obama should be aware of the timing of the conflict. His bad relations with Benjamin Netanyahu are an open secret. Although Netanyahu’s staff could contain him from launching an attack before the American elections, Obama also knew that his adversaries among the hawks, and within the Israeli lobby could instrumentalize such an escalation to his disfavor, to cripple his foreign policy, should he set out to deal boldly with the Palestinian issue -- the mother of all problems and the source of anti-Americanism in the region. The pretext has so far served his opponents’ interests well.

But it also has to do with the Arab Awakening. The vicious adversaries of President Mohammed Morsi moved in. As a follow-up to the violence they triggered using the YouTube movie as a pretext, Salafis and Islamic jihadists used the managerial weakness and divisions of opinion within Hamas to take the lead by sending rockets to provoke Israel into action. Hawks and butchers on both sides have known all along how the other would react. Once more they have demonstrated to Obama that no problems will evaporate unless a decisive leader goes in to facilitate solutions.

One can argue how wrong Israel was when it treated its Turkish ally with arrogance and shortsightedness about the Mavi Marmara incident. One can argue, too, that it was caught unprepared before the massive Arab unrest, and with the nasty dynamics that pushed Syria into collapse. And, one can only feel pity that the Israeli political elite now sees its guarantee for stability only among the hawks of the American right. At the moment, it is a reality, not to be changed for a while. But, what Obama and his new administration decide to do from now on will surely matter.

Obama probably realizes that the “Gaza effect” pushed Turkey and Egypt together, but moved them away from the US, because of the country’s clearly detached attitude. The perception that “Israel is unjustly favored” adds up to an already fuming mass of emotions across the region. It has less to do with who started what: It has to do with an immense and painful historical conflict left unresolved.

From this vantage point, one can fully understand the frustrations of Morsi and Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Both are elected leaders who are very keen on maintaining their voter base and hope for a peaceful transition into democratic systems. They are both capable of secularizing Islam and cooperating on a military endeavor for long-desired stability in the region. They are, despite their harsh rhetoric, concerned about further radicalization, a threat to their pluralistic vision.

There has already been a reminder that things can get worse with the recent clashes in Iraqi Kurdistan between Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki’s troops -- Shiite Arabs -- and Kurdish peshmerga units. It is not rocket science to guess which regional powers and their accomplices are the masterminds behind these lethal advances. If not taken seriously and with urgency, we may be facing an all-out regional war before we know it. Lebanon is already fragile and with Jordan is showing signs of internal unease, Syria showing its regime’s desperation and the regional Kurdish element adrift; it is nothing but a luxury to keep a distance from it all. A policy shift in Washington towards resolve and vigor, centered on the Palestinian issue, is therefore called for.

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