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Obama’s Middle East policy disappoints both Israel and Palestine

Obama speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York
Obama speaking at the UN General Assembly in New York Reuters/Brendan McDermid

Barack Obama has met for the last time in his capacity as US president with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The meeting came just a week after the US and Israel signed a 38 billion US dollar military agreement, the largest ever. And although Obama has always been critical about Israeli settlements in the occupied territories, no concrete solution of the Palestinian problem was presented during his two terms in office.


When Obama started his presidency, back in 2009, he gave his first speech on the Middle East, "A New Beginning" in Cairo, where he tried to mend ties with the Arab world.

Both Palestinians and Israelis agree that this was a good start. But then it seemed to go wrong.

“Within three years of the Obama speech in Cairo, there was what has been called the Arab Spring, a general rebellion within the Arab world.” Says Emmanuel Navlon, a professor of international relations with Tel Aviv University.

“And Obama very much hesitated how to handle the situation.

“The second stage was of course with Syria in the summer of 2014 when Obama had threatened to intervene militarily if Assad were to use chemical weapons against his population. Now he didn't have to make that statement, but he did make it, and when Assad did use his chemical weapons, Obama did not carry out his threat,” he says.

The 2009 Cairo speech made especially the Palestinians hope that a solution for their problem was near. “He started well, with his speech in Cairo,” says Mustafa Barghouti, a Palestinian politician and head of the Palestine National Initiative. “He spoke about the need to stop all settlement activities, but unfortunately so far it is a legacy of unfulfilled promises and great disappointment.

“Especially with the conclusion of the largest military aid for Israel without conditioning it to an end to the occupation or stopping the settlement activities. We were very optimistic in the beginning and hoping he would present a different approach completely, and not be as biased towards Israel as other presidents have been, but I think we were so disappointed that nothing was done and all the promises were not fulfilled,” he says.

Unfortunately it is a legacy of unfulfilled promises.

Obama and Netanyahu met on Wednesday probably for the last time during Obama’s presidency. In the past Netanyahu did not make himself popular with the Obama administration, especially when he lobbied Congress last year to try to change its mind on a deal that would end sanctions against Iran.

But despite the criticism, also inside the US, at Israel’s supposed meddling in internal politics, the relationship between the two countries held steady enough for Israel to secure a 38-billion US dollar military deal.

“Even though on a personal level there is definitely a lack of chemistry, to put it mildly, between Netanyahu and Obama, it does remain that Israel and the US do have common interests,” says Navlon.

“And when the US government signs this kind of packages with Israel, it also servers the American interest, because it can buy American military hardware, and to promote US interests in the Middle East. So this is not a charity, it is an agreement that serves the interests of both countries.”

So in the end, Israel has little reason to complain. But the Palestinians are not happy, even Obama called on Israel to end the settlement policy when he gave his speech at the opening of the UN general assembly earlier this week.

“He was right in saying that Israel has to understand that the occupation must end and that they cannot keep the control of settlements forever,” says Mustafa Barghouti.

“But unfortunately he did not clarify that the US is ready to exercise any specific form of pressure on Israel to end the occupation and stop the settlement activities. Especially in the light of next year, it would be 50 years of this occupation that has become the longest in modern history,” he says.

Meanwhile, both Barghouti and Navlon said they were very suspicious about a possible presidency of Donald Trump, who they respectively called ‘racist’ and ‘unpredictable’, and seem to think that a Clinton administration will be a continuation of the status quo, for the better, or for the worse.

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