Obama's Mideast trip changes nothing

White House/Pete Souza

President Obama signs a guestbook after visiting the grave of Theodor Herzl.

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  • President Abbas demanded a settlement freeze because he believed Washington would impose a freeze.

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  • President Obama has a dim view of Israel. Nothing on his Mideast trip changed this reality. @AmbJohnBolton

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  • Meanwhile, Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government continues to threaten the Camp David peace accords.

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President Obama’s trip to Israel and Jordan last week had two widely divergent objectives. Publicly, he wanted to repair the political damage he has suffered from his frosty relationships with Israel and its leaders. On substantive policy, by contrast, officials on both sides believed that Obama intended, in his private meetings, to continue relentlessly pressuring Israel for more concessions to the Palestinians and to refrain from using military force against Iran’s nuclear-weapons program.

Of course, it was never just personality conflicts that brought US-Israeli relations to their lowest level ever, but Obama’s perspective on US national-security interests in the Middle East. Unfortunately for both Jerusalem and Washington, his views, radically different from prior presidents of both parties, haven’t changed. Ironically, by achieving its political objectives, his trip may have reduced opposition to precisely those policies that separated him so dramatically from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

During his visit, Obama seemed to accept Israel’s raison d’etre as the historical Jewish homeland, not simply as a post-Holocaust refuge. He visited important manifestations of that ancient presence, such as the Dead Sea Scrolls, and he laid a wreath on Theodor Herzl’s grave. One Israeli commentator gushed in response that Obama “had us at ‘shalom’!”

Cultural sensitivity is a fine thing, but Obama wields it as a political tool, taking the edge off criticism but not shifting philosophically from his insistence on a Palestinian state “with contiguous territory that ends the occupation that began in 1967,” as he said to the United Nations in 2009.

Many hailed Obama’s apparent abandonment of the Palestinian Authority’s long-standing precondition that Israel stop West Bank settlement construction before direct negotiations resume. But this is simply a shift in Obama’s tactics, not his ultimate objectives, and it is in fact objectively pro-Palestinian.

PA President Mahmoud Abbas had demanded a settlement freeze before resuming negotiations largely because he believed Washington could and would impose a freeze. But Abbas’ gambit has obviously brought neither a freeze nor negotiations, hardly the outcome Palestinians favor. Dropping the precondition simply allows Obama, once direct negotiations resume, to continue pushing Israel to stop settlements and to withdraw from more West Bank territory in a final agreement.

Moreover, Obama made clear that Secretary of State John Kerry will devote substantial attention to reviving the peace process, thus suiting both Kerry’s inclinations and Obama’s political calculation that he can join the parade later if success seems imminent. Indeed, by involving Secretary Kerry himself, rather than merely a special envoy like George Mitchell, Obama has actually raised the peace-process priority from his first term.

On Iran’s nuclear weapons program, Obama merely acknowledged, as he has previously, that Israel has a right to defend itself. His statements about possible US military action were no different than his prior obfuscations. And he did nothing to change the reality that, public protestations to the contrary, the strong view inside his administration (as reflected in statements by former Obama advisers) is that a nuclear Iran can be contained and deterred.

Erroneous though that view is, it explains why Obama won’t use military force against Iran, and why he will keep leaning on Israel not to do so.

Even the trip’s one piece of unexpected news, Netanyahu’s apology to Turkey for the Mavi Marmara incident and the prospect of normalized Israeli-Turkish diplomatic relations, carries grave risks for Israel.

Turkey’s support for the “Gaza flotilla” directly challenged Israeli national security, and was well understood as such throughout the Middle East. If the region broadly perceives Netanyahu’s apology as stemming from US pressure, Israel’s adversaries will quickly encourage Obama to turn up the heat in other areas, such as dealing with the Palestinians or Iran. And it remains to be seen whether improved Turkish-Israeli relations are real, or merely another transitory photo opportunity.

Meanwhile, overall Middle Eastern stability continues to deteriorate ever more rapidly. Lebanon’s government just resigned under Hezbollah threats. Syria’s Assad regime last week claimed that rebels had used chemical weapons, while the rebels countered that it was the regime. The truth remains unclear, but the grave risk those weapons in terrorist hands pose to Israel, America or others does not.

Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government continues to threaten the Camp David peace accords, and Jordan’s King Abdullah has warned publicly of the Brotherhood’s desire to overthrow his regime and replace it with a version of Hamas.

Obama is a master of politics rather than statesmanship, and has a dim view of Israel. Nothing on his Middle East trip changed this reality.

John R. Bolton is a former US ambassador to the United Nations.

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