Obama plays a Long Game in the Middle East

President Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu The Barack and Bibi show may be awkward, considering how much they seemed to have loathed one another in the past, but it has produced results

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Tourists may wander where they will, and when US President Barack Obama visits Jordan's glorious, ancient city of Petra, he will not make any loaded statement about America's attitude to the Second Century empire that thrived there.

Not so in Israel. There, it was not just words that had to be parsed. Sightseeing is message-making too.

Mr Obama went to look at the Dead Sea Scrolls - a reminder that Jews lived here thousands of years ago.

He went to the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, having declared a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land was redemption.

Before the visit, several American commentators urged him to learn to speak Israeli - now his fluency is almost frightening.

The Bibi and Barack show, a series of awkward joshing jests between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr Obama - two men who had given every impression they loathed each other in the past - may make the squeamish squirm.

But faking it can lead to feeling it. Mr Obama has already won an apology to the Turkish prime minister from Mr Netanyahu for the 2010 raid on a flotilla of Gaza-bound activists, and there is some hope he might do something to further the possibility of peace talks.

But Mr Obama's embrace of a word - Zionism - will have other results too.

For some in the region it is not the expression of a dream but a deadly insult to be spat out.

The long game?

Mr Obama knows that. He knows the Arab world already felt he had let it down. Now he has confirmed what they feared he was: an American president.

But - and this is typical of Mr Obama - he seems to feel that now that he has explained it, Israelis will get it. The values of Zionism are universal: a people deserve freedom, deserve a land. Get it? Not. Just. You.

Mr Obama has huge faith in the power of his own words. That is not said in simple mockery, but sometimes he seems to be happier as a prophet than as politician.

One of his favourite quotes, from civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr, is: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Mr Obama seems never happier than when tugging on that moral arc, even if it springs back in his face.

He urged young Israelis to tell their politicians to show courage - he said exactly the same to the American people recently, for instance about outlawing assault rifles, an attempt that has just fallen at the first Senate hurdle as he surely knew it would.

In Jerusalem he observed, rather ruefully I thought, that King, like Moses, never got to see the promised land.

Neither cynics nor partisans fully understand the magnitude of Mr Obama's ambition - nor the length of his game.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

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  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    230 I definitely detect strong jealousy in your postings. Are you saying Hamas should give up home made rockets, suicide vests, and other primitive ways of illegally killing people for drones too? I don't think they can. I don't think they spent enough time as kids playing with model remote controlled airplanes. They'll just have to stick with what they know for their illegal killing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    Well done Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for your apology to the Turkish Prime Minister. Although what happened was unfortunate... the relationship has been restored. "Do not reprove a scoffer, lest he hate you; Reprove a wise one, and he loves you" Proverbs 9:8. 'If you admit that you were wrong is to declare that you are wiser now than before.'

  • Comment number 230.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    There hasn't been a shred of evidence that Iran is working on nuclear weapons and Iran has signed up to the NPT, unlike Israel. The Iranian scare story is being whipped up by Israel to distract attention from their military occupation and violations of international law in occupied Palestine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    227 I think it was clear US Commander-in-Chief Obama watched the assault on Osama Bin Laden's compound live in real time on TV and was calling the shots. Not only did he find it tense and exciting, I'll bet when he writes his memoirs he'll say it was the best television program he ever saw in his entire life. You can find lists of US weapons (except the top secret ones of course) on the internet.

  • Comment number 227.

    All this user's posts have been removed.Why?

  • rate this

    Comment number 226.

    218"many for peace & forgiveness in Iran"

    Then they'd better get rid of their dictatorship and do something 100% convincing to the world that they are not trying to develop an atomic bomb. Time is running very short and a 5000 year old civilization is in increasingly grave jeopardy of being lost to humanity. This will not be allowed to go on for a whole lot longer.

  • rate this

    Comment number 225.

    sieuarlu (214),

    “… What's the point of a token effort at a hopeless task?It was a waste of time, effort, and US taxpayer money …”

    Perhaps so, but American Foreign Policy in the Middle East is a political process, and President Obama is a politician who wants to advance the agenda of his Political Party.

  • rate this

    Comment number 224.

    The best any President can do is bring the parties to the table. Egypt and Israel made peace in spite of Jimmy Cater not because of him

    But in this case only the Israelis want peace.

  • Comment number 223.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 222.

    Watching President Obama's recent visit to Israel and his relationship with PM Bibi Netanyahu has been encouraging, although the coverage by the BBC has not been as expected. If this were a another country and another situation would the coverage have been the same? Please keep up with unbiased reporting and giving the people of Israel fair coverage and an equal representation on your station.

  • rate this

    Comment number 221.

    In northern Pakistan it is common to see stars of David adorning houses and even vehicles. The Pashtuns (even Taliban-supporting ones) see themselves as one of Israel's missing tribes.

    This shows the hold of Israel on the world's imagination. It's too important to be left to the meddling of outsiders. As they might say in Pakistan, "Zindabad Israel!" (long live Israel!).

  • rate this

    Comment number 220.

    IMO, the nation state Israel exits as result of the West's desire to control the region's assets. A US Pres. couldn't alter this if he wanted. Obama has told people of the region, a better fate for their future -largely- is in their own hands, and has referenced the US's own 150 year struggle with the one state solution that was the outcome of the civil war.

  • rate this

    Comment number 219.

    "Obama...slipping approval numbers."

    Spot on. I think Obama's antics in Israel and the adjacant liberated territories reflect a drive for improved Obama poll numbers. Israel is too important to be used as a colourful background to a campaign of rhetoric and self-promotion. The sooner Barack's back home, the better.

  • rate this

    Comment number 218.


    Suggesting Iran might nuke Israel, aside from cold-war offence, have you considered direct risk to Palestinians, & issue of injury from fall-out, & lasting land-contamination across the region?

    Few circumstances could even remotely 'justify' such an act. One might be the bombing of Iran

    As in Israel, many for peace & forgiveness in Iran. Only for a season under reactive tyranny

  • rate this

    Comment number 217.

    I do like Mardells reportage, insightful and sophisticated..

    Good work..

    Obamas real politick wuth Netanyahu..! They despise each other right..?


  • Comment number 216.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 215.

    marieinaustin (204),

    “… The bigger the weapon, the less chance to use it without blowing yourself or your ally to smithereens. Unless you're crazy …”

    The events of 9/11 do shine a harsh light on the limits of MAD. When one is dealing with an opponent who is willing to accept self-destruction as a conflict outcome (suicide bomber), controlling the size of the weapon becomes important.

  • rate this

    Comment number 214.

    212 He can claim to have tried to move Mount Everest too but it won't budge either.What's the point of a token effort at a hopeless task?It was a waste of time, effort, and US taxpayer money.

    210 What's intriguing (to me) is the W88. 25 to 30 Hiroshima's in a cone less than 6 feet long, 2 feet in diameter at its base and under 800 pounds. Does Israel have them? I doubt it but you never know.

  • rate this

    Comment number 213.

    ref #212
    he can at least claim to have tried to move the opposing camps towards a peace conference, if not a settlement.
    Not sure about that although if it does not happen no blame should acrue to the President. the Palestinians were told by him they need to come back to the table. Ball is in their court. my message to israel keep building.


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