‘Obama will try to succeed in the Middle East where Clinton and Bush failed’

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President-elect Barack Obama will have to carry a heavy burden: restore confidence in global markets and manage a country amidst a recession; confront the risk of nuclear proliferation; and contain the rise of forces that are inimical to free markets, civil rights and open society. We wish him well – for it is a daunting task.

In the Middle East, too, we trust that President Obama will, like his predecessors, protect regional stability and guarantee access to energy resources for the global economy. His support for Israel should not be questioned. The two countries share interests and values much more enduring than the political differences between Republicans and Democrats.

Nevertheless, and regardless of how small and nuanced a shift in US Middle East policy might be, we hope that President Obama will recognise that some regional challenges are not easily resolved.

This applies especially to the Arab-Israeli dispute. Despite differences of emphasis and timing, US policy under five successive presidents – both Democrats and Republicans – has been driven consistently by good intentions but bad understanding. There is a difference of approach between the two sides at the heart of the Arab-Israeli conflict, which makes it intractable.

Israel, together with its Western partners, believes that compromise is the key to solving the dispute. The Palestinians, by contrast, believe that the solution only comes through justice. Compromise means, for Israel, finding the perfect point of equilibrium on the map of Arab-Israeli grievances, through a complicated but achievable balance of mutual concessions, economic incentives and security arrangements. For the Palestinians, justice means rectifying the historic wrongs their people suffered, in their own judgment, at the hands of Israel. This includes an absolute recognition of a so-called “right of return” for Palestinian refugees and their descendants to areas that today are inside Israel’s borders. For Israel, this kills compromise. For Palestinians, renouncing it kills justice.

Nothing has changed in this equation since Bill Clinton failed to deliver peace in late 2000. Many have criticised President Bush for shunning the issue – and we are confident that President Obama, the author of The Audacity of Hope, will try to succeed where Clinton and Bush failed. What could be more audacious than the hope of a peace that has eluded everyone for so long?

What we fear is neither a generic commitment to peace nor an active engagement in pursuing it. Instead, that hope may quickly cross the boundary into the realm of illusion.

President Obama should know that it is not the elusiveness of Arab-Israeli peace that must concern us, but rather the strength and vitality of radical Islam as a force of change. As in the ’60s, the Middle East is being shaken by revolutionary fervour. The aspiration is to re-establish a lost supremacy, then for the Arab nation, now for Islam. Then, secular pan-Arab nationalism promised a way out of backwardness at home and weakness abroad. Today, radical Islam offers much the same. Radicals read regional events as the incontrovertible proof of their ascendancy and the decline of their enemies – America and Israel. The Lebanon war of 2006, Hamas’s ascent in Gaza and Israel’s unilateral withdrawal are all seen as the harbingers of the Jewish state’s collapse. First and foremost, however, these events are perceived as a sign that Israel has lost its ability to fight back. The situation in Iraq is viewed as a sign of American weakness. And the seemingly unstoppable rise of Iran in its nuclear quest is viewed as evidence that American hegemony in the Middle East is waning. If all of this is true, then radical Islam is winning. It will be the adversary of Mr Obama for years to come. He can afford no illusions on this matter. If free and fair elections were held across the region today, moderate, liberal-minded and freedom-loving forces would stand no chance of winning. The Arab-Israeli conflict is not the cause of this phenomenon: it is its hostage.

Regional rulers are beholden to the rhetoric of radicals, and moderates are a minority. Neither will take bold action. They will occasionally do what they can to help and frequently what they must to survive, but never join the West to achieve common goals. The result is that there is little scope for changing the course of events for outsiders – even the US president.

It is hoped that Mr Obama will understand that his capacity to mediate, let alone impose solutions on the warring sides, is inversely proportional to his current levels of popularity. But as he tries and loses popularity in the process, he will likely find that reconciling the irreconcilable is an exercise in futility.

The president needs to realise that little can be done about dynamics that are largely endogenous to the region. Much can still be achieved by containing radicalism, which will run its course eventually but only after incurring a resounding defeat. Until then, any step he takes to engage in dialogue and mediation will be seen as a sign of weakness and only further embolden America’s enemies.

The Bush administration was repeatedly criticised for the arrogance of its policies – sometimes deservedly. But in a newly-humble White House, President Obama will do well to recognise how much better it is to seek limited but realistic goals than to pursue a chimera.