By FOX News Radio’s White House Correspondent Mike Majchrowitz, who traveled with the President during his Middle East trip.
President Obama’s Middle East trip last week demonstrated that while he is trying to pivot America’s focus to the Pacific, events in this tumultuous part of the world will not be ignored. It has been a vexing problem for nine Presidents who came before him, and despite a high profile attempt to bridge a reconciliation with the Islamic world and between the Israelis and Palestinians early in his first administration, both efforts eventually bogged down. Aware of the difficulties, the White House tamped down expectations ahead of the trip. As the President himself noted, “We set expectations low precisely because there’s been a lot of talk over decades but it hasn’t produced the results that everybody wants to see.”
The President said he was coming to the Middle East to do his “homework”, to see where the peace process stands and where there are opportunities to get it back on track. He echoed the frustrations of people in the region and back home in the United States, “I think all of us in the international community share this frustration — why can’t we get this problem solved?” The President insists the current impasse is not permanent but could become that way, “the window of opportunity still exists but it’s getting more and more difficult. The mistrust is building instead of ebbing.” The President called on the Israeli government to stop its settlement construction in the West Bank, but also acknowledged that given current Israeli politics, that’s not likely to happen soon.
He called on the Palestinians to drop their demand that settlements halt as a pre-condition to resuming negotiations, “if the only way to even begin the conversations is that we get everything right at the outset, or at least each party is constantly negotiating about what’s required to get into talks in the first place, then we’re never going to get to the broader issue.” But Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Mahmoud Abbas showed little sign he would let up on the settlement issues, “it is not only our perception that settlements are illegal, but it is a global perspective. Everybody considers settlements not only a hurdle, but even more than a hurdle, towards the two-state solution.” Average Palestinians showed their frustrations by protesting during the President’s visit to the West Bank.
Perhaps the most consequential part of the trip was the chance it gave the President to counteract the impression from his first term that relations with Israel were strained at best. He toured important historical and cultural sites and was feted at a State Dinner by the Israelis.
There Israeli President Shimon Peres presented President Obama with their Medal of Distinction, the nation’s highest civilian honor. Peres, whom President Obama awarded the U.S. Medal of Freedom last year, showed no hints of any strained relations, “We watch with admiration the way you lead the United States of America, the way you have stayed true time and again to your bonds of friendship with us.”
Solidarity was the overriding theme of the Jerusalem visit from the President’s tour of an Iron Dome anti-missile battery built with American funding, to the President’s visit to Mount Herzl, where Israel honors Zionism’s founder as well as the nation’s great leaders and war dead.
The President returned home with one solid accomplishment, a break in the nearly three year-old feud between the Israeli and Turkish governments. The deep freeze in what had been relatively warm relations started when the Israelis stopped a Turkish blockade running ship in 2010. Nine Turks were killed. The President urged Israeli officials to take the first step, “During my visit, it appeared that the timing was good for that conversation to take place.” To maximize effect, Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu made the call to Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdogan from a trailer at the airport as President Obama was preparing to leave Israel. Netanyahu apologized for ‘operational errors’ during the incident and the two leaders agreed to look into normalizing relations. That was a relief for the Obama administration which had long-fretted over having two key allies at odds. But the President warned there’s a lot of work left before all the differences are patched up, “it’s just beginning…there are obviously going to still be some significant disagreements between Turkey and Israel.”
The President and Israeli leaders took pains to emphasize diplomatically the U.S. and Israel are on the same page, particularly on the Iranian nuclear threat. But in the course of the trip it appeared some differences were emerging, particularly whether a military strike against Iranian nuclear facilities was warranted. President Obama continues to insist the military option remains “on the table” but, “we’re going to continue to apply the pressure that we have in a nonmilitary way to try to resolve the problem. We will continue to try to pursue diplomatic solutions to the situation.” Israeli leaders indicated they were willing to wait a little longer on diplomacy and sanctions, but they were clearly more inclined to see the military option as a practical solution.
In a joint news conference with President Obama, President Peres noted the concerns over chemical weapons use in Syria, “fortunately, the Syrian nuclear capacity was destroyed.” It was destroyed by a suspected Israeli military strike, Peres making it clear that action spared the world an even greater threat. And standing next to President Obama, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reserved the right of the Israelis to act, “Mr. President, I want to thank you once again for always making clear that Israel must be able to defend itself, by itself, against any threat.” And to be clear, Netanyahu emphasized Israel was free to act with or without the United States, “Israel can never cede the right to defend ourselves to others, even to the greatest of our friends.”
Then there is the on-going civil war in Syria. The issue taking a particular urgency when the President visited Amman Jordan which has absorbed hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees. That has been a major strain on a country that didn’t have a terribly robust economy to begin with. King Abdullah II warning that the problem for his kingdom was only likely to grow, “The latest figures are just going to cost us roughly $550 million a year. But if those figures double, as we think they will, by the end of the year, then, obviously, we’re talking a billion-plus.” President Obama pledged another $200 million dollars to help with the refugee crisis and lamented the slaughter in Syria, “It’s tragic. It’s heartbreaking. And the sight of children and women being slaughtered that we’ve seen so much I think has to compel all of us to say, what more can we do?”
The governments of England and France, and some members of Congress say there is much more the U.S. and international community can do including giving arms to the rebels and possible military action including a no-fly zone. President Obama expressed frustration over such suggestions, “the United States often finds itself in a situation where if it goes in militarily, then it’s criticized for going in militarily; and if doesn’t go in militarily, then people say, why aren’t you doing something militarily?” The President expressing concern such weaponry might fall into the hands of people not friendly to the United States and not committed to democracy, “What I am confident about is that ultimately what the people of Syria are looking for is not replacing oppression with a new form of oppression.” But the day after the President returned from the Middle East, the leader of the Syrian opposition Moaz al-Khatib announced his resignation. His reason was the lack of military support from the West, “everything that has happened to the Syrian people, from the destruction of their infrastructure, the arrest of tens of thousands of Syrians, the displacement of hundreds of thousands people, and other tragedies, were not enough to take an international decision to allow the Syrian people to defend themselves.” Arizona Republican Senator John McCain laying much of the responsibility for this ‘setback’ on the President, “The Obama Administration spent a lot of diplomatic capital to facilitate the formation of the Syrian Opposition Coalition under Sheikh Moaz’s leadership. But over the past several months of the Coalition’s existence, the United States has done precious little to support their efforts.”
While the President will try and maintain his focus on reviving the U.S. economy and his pivot to the Pacific region, it is likely problems in the Middle East will continue to intrude. It is also likely he will continue to face pressure to become more involved in stopping Iran’s nuclear program and halting the bloodshed in Syria.
If he continues on his current course, this is the danger the words he spoke at Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial, could come back to haunt him. “We see how evil can, for a moment in time, triumph when good people do nothing.”
LISTEN to FOX News Radio’s Mike Majchrowitz reporting from the Middle East while traveling with the President: