Fresh off of his convincing electoral victory last November, Barack Obama is managing to hold his own against the Republican Party in Congress in a series of government-funding-crisis confrontations. He still gets pretty good mileage from campaign-like trips out to the boondocks beyond D.C. to gather political support, buoyed by his strong poll-numbers.
But that’s within the US borders. In the Middle East, on the other hand, he’s not so popular, as the Süddeutsche Zeitung reminds us:
Yet that is where the President is currently off to, namely to Israel, where, as the journalist Peter Münch puts it
In the West Bank they have abused his pictures with shoes and set them on fire, in Israel a survey has shown that only 1 out of ten likes him.
Wait, doesn’t anyone remember Obama’s epic 2009 Cairo speech, reaching out to Iran and to the Arab world? Yet now he is disliked from all sides! Why is that?
Obama’s first foray into the Near East peace process failed because it was well-meant but not well-made. In the manner of an itinerant preacher he made loud promises that he could not keep, and added to them mild threats that he withdrew at the slightest resistance. This lack of consistency has exacted a bitter revenge: the region drifts towards new conflicts and the USA has lost influence there.
Yes, and there was the minor additional thing that Binyamin Netanyahu openly campaigned last year for Obama’s Republican challenger, Mitt Romney!
(Obama had the chance to return the favor in January, when the Israelis had their own national elections and it was by no means certain that Netanyahu would emerge at the other end with sufficient political support – in the form of a coalition of sufficient size – to stay in the prime minister’s office. But the President demurred – this at about the same time as he also missed the opportunity to impose on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid to bring about some sort of filibuster reform to ease recurrent Republican obstruction in the Senate that, in effect, has set the threshold for passing legislation at 60 votes, something never intended in the Constitution.)
In any case, the profound disconnect between these two heads of government has been clear for some time, not least during Netanyahu’s visits to Washington, which have featured various deliberate protocol downshifts to make clear to observers that ongoing discussions were not turning out to be particularly cordial. Now, for the first time (and last?), the flow has gone in the other direction, to Israel – and you can gauge the state of personal relations by examining the very revealing photo at the top of the SZ piece – just look at Obama’s expression! Doesn’t this just cry out for someone to sponsor a “Caption this picture!” or “A penny for the President’s thoughts!” contest?
The Myth of Sisyphus
But the really funny – as in tragically funny – thing about Münch’s article, enough almost to make you Scream, is its very title: Obama’s Duty. The point is that, as disliked as he is in that neighborhood, “the President of the USA has not only the power, but also the duty to force the two ethnic-peoples [Kleinvölker] to compromise.”
That’s really hard to believe. Obama has had so little progress so far, what makes anyone think he is willing to keep on trying to roll this Sisyphus’ boulder up the hill? News reports picked up on his remark to Netanyahu that “It’s good to get away from Congress” but it’s precisely back home that Obama has his main battles to fight, with the obstreperous Republican elements of that Congress, to accomplish his remaining domestic goals before he transitions to world elder statesman in January, 2017. He won’t be interested any more in diverting his efforts to Israel and the Palestinians.
So why is he in Israel now in the first place? Especially considering that he has no more elections to win, no more need for gestures to America’s Jewish voters? It beats me; as often is the case, it’s likely the The Onion puts it best, you should check this out:
UPDATE: Indeed, MidEast expert Prof. Juan Cole concludes that Obama has given up on making any progress on the Israel-Palestine issue; an important clue is how he didn’t bother any more to tell the Israelis to stop building West Bank settlements (i.e. stealing Palestinian land) during his visit. So much for Pflicht.