Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Obama does an about-face

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TEL AVIV -- One year after Barack Obama occupied the White House, the priorities of his Middle East policy are totally changed -- from a confrontation with Israel over the Palestinian problem to an extremely co-ordinated policy towards Iran.

It is worth dwelling here briefly on how this reversal of priorities had occurred. When the liberal Obama assumed power last January, his top priorities were a reconciliation with the Islamic world and solving the Palestinian problem. To achieve this goal, he travelled to Turkey and Cairo, visited Saudi Arabia, made advances to Syria and sent three conciliatory messages to Iran.

This was in sharp contrast to the policies of the newly elected right-wing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. The new government reversed the order of priorities of former prime minister Ehud Olmert and his foreign minister Tzipi Livni. During a visit to Washington, Netanyahu insisted that the top priority in the Middle East should be Iran's nuclear ambitions and its sponsorship of terrorism -- Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Gaza Strip. Once Iran is contained, he argued, it would be easier to solve the Palestinian problem.

Influenced mainly by Egypt and Saudi Arabia, Obama rejected Netanyahu's approach. He insisted on solving the Palestinian problem first and dealing diplomatically with Iran's regional ambitions.

Mindful of the political dangers to his premiership, Netanyahu yielded. He delivered the Bar-Ilan speech in which he accepted the two-state solution. Then he went even further than any of his predecessors and accepted a 10-month freeze of settlement activity in the West Bank.

But then came the June elections in both Lebanon and Iran that shook the foundations of Obama's appeasement policy toward the Islamic world. All of a sudden Syria had restored its influence in Beirut, and without returning his troops to Lebanon, President Bashar Assad became the real kingmaker in Beirut.

As to Iran, Obama was slow to observe the "winds of change" in Tehran and he was slow in reacting to the spontaneous demonstrations of the unorganized opposition that protested the fraudulent election results. Instead of supporting the opposition, Obama continued to offer his hand to a corrupt and cruel Iranian regime that is seeking to dominate the entire region through increased support to Hezbollah and Hamas.

It was at that stage Obama was forced to change course. Not only Israel, but also his moderate allies -- led publicly by Egypt and discreetly by Saudi Arabia -- urged a "new thinking" in Washington. The Persian Gulf Arab countries feel that they are being increasingly threatened by Iran's drive to achieve nuclear capability.

And Obama indeed changed course. In the last two months, relations between Israel and Egypt warmed up considerably and through a visit to Cairo, Netanyahu and President Mubarak co-ordinated various moves. Director of the CIA, Leon Panetta, and the national security adviser, Gen. James Jones, have visited Israel twice in the last two months. Discreet intelligence co-operation between Israel and the Persian Gulf countries -- that never stopped -- has strengthened and policies towards Iran became more co-ordinated. In an interview with the Jerusalem Post on Sunday, Jones said that "we are co-ordinating very closely with Israel and we have a very good and continual dialogue over how to handle Iran. Israel is acting responsibly in matters concerning Iran."

Parallel to this co-ordination with Israel, the U.S. also moved this week to help strengthen the defences of its allies in the Persian Gulf.

The Pentagon announced over the weekend that the U.S. will deploy eight Patriot missile batteries -- with their American teams -- in Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates. Naval units of the 5th fleet were deployed off the Iranian coast. Both the Patriots and the ships' missiles are capable of intercepting short-range Iranian missiles. Finally, the U.S. will also modernize Saudi Arabia's and the UAE's weapons systems and sell them modern planes for a total of $25 billion.

The most fascinating thing about these arms sales is that Israel did not say a word about it. In the past, Israel vigorously protested to the U.S. and to any other country about weapons sales to Arab countries.

During the Reagan presidency, Israel "raised hell" in Washington about the intention to sell three AWAC reconnaissance planes to Saudi Arabia. Now, as an unofficial member in the "moderate Arab coalition," Israel remained quiet.

Do all these moves indicate that the "military option" against Iran is back on the table? Not yet. Obama is very reluctant to start a new war with a third Muslim country, while Iraq and Afghanistan are still bleeding. That would be a humiliating admission that his pro-Islamic policy had failed. Instead, the next move will be at the United Nations. France assumed the rotating presidency of the Security Council on Monday. The U.S. believes that it will be easier to work with France on an accepted formula for sanctions against Iran. If this effort fails, then all options will be open.

Sam Segev is the Free Press Middle East correspondent, based in Tel Aviv.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 2, 2010 A10

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About Samuel Segev

Samuel Segev is the Winnipeg Free Press correspondent in the Middle East. He is based in Tel Aviv.

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