Last updated: April 29, 2013

Q&A on Obama and the Middle East

Katie Gonzalez has spoken with Joel Beinin, professor of Middle East history at Stanford University, about Obama’s recent trip to the Middle East and the future possibility of a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine.

YME: Generally, what are your thoughts on the recent trip?

JB: Well what we saw in public was not very substantial. It was mostly for domestic politics consumption, reassuring the Israel lobby that (United States President) Obama loves Israel. He didn’t go to Israel during his first term, so now he went there and it was basically a big love fest to reverse bad relationships that were established as a result of the friction between (Israel Prime Minister) Netanyahu and Obama early in Obama’s first term. There might be some more behind-the-scenes substance to it than that, obviously the Turkish reconciliation was one apparent consequence of the trip. But in terms of Israeli-Palestinian peace, it’s a big zero.

YME: Many commentators have described Obama’s visit as a success. Why do you think they’ve branded the trip in that way?

JB: Because there were no expectations. Obama said in advance, he’s not bringing any new proposals for Israeli-Palestinian peace so with no expectations, and from a public relations point of view, it was a success. The Washington media is never particularly critical or analytical, so they basically parrot the White House line.

YME: Do you think the recent trip has helped with Israeli relations, or was it kind of just more superficial PR?

JB: It’s superficial PR. Israel and the United States have for decades been very close; that’s never been a question. They were close even as Obama and Netanyahu were having all sorts of problems getting along. That didn’t in the slightest affect the Israeli relations with the United States, and I don’t think it will change one way or another as a result of the trip. They will be if anything closer, not that it wasn’t quite close before.

YME: How did the trip affect Obama’s relationship with Palestinians?

JB: Zero. He offered them absolutely nothing, and most Palestinians, except for the Palestinian Authority which has decided to go along with Americans no matter what evidently…were either disappointed or didn’t have expectations anyways, so they got what they anticipated, which was nothing.

YME: Was the trip positive in the fact that is helped with Israeli-Turkish relations?

JB: Well I don’t think it’s positive, I think it’s entirely negative, because the stronger the relationship between Obama and the AIPAC forces of the United States, the less a chance that there’s going to be any type of Israeli-Palestinian peace. From a certain political point of view, from Obama’s political point of view, he got what he wanted to achieve. But I don’t think that in the slightest helps Israeli-Palestinian peace. It in fact damages it.

YME: In this point in his tenure, what can Obama do to help with negotiations for a two-state solution between Israel and Palestine?

JB: I don’t think the United States can do anything. Not because it couldn’t have in the past, it could have but didn’t, because Israel is its ally and it won’t press on Israel to deal with the Palestinians in any fair or just relationship. At this point, it’s extremely unlikely that there can be a real two-state solution in the way people have historically thought about it at all. Because in the last 20-30 years Israel has gobbled up a good deal of territory in the West Bank, all the while that it has been official American policy to oppose the settlement expansion. But the United States has done absolutely nothing to actually stop it. Obama said that he don’t think these settlements are a good idea, but as was the case in the first term, no effective sanctions were imposed on Israel by the President, and that’s consistent with American policy going way back.

So at this point, even if Obama wanted to try really hard — and I don’t think he does — he would not be likely to be successful in bringing about a two-state solution to the conflict. I think it’s quite likely that it’s passed us now. I wouldn’t say impossible, because it’s possible to imagine tearing down the wall, and ending settlements as a matter of principle, but as a matter of political practicality, I think it’s very unlikely.

YME: And you mentioned, were you in Beirut at the time of Obama’s trip to Israel?

JB: I was.

YME: You mentioned there wasn’t a lot of media coverage over there. Why do you think this is — why is there such a discrepancy for what’s being covered in the Middle East and then being covered in the American media about the Middle East?

JB: Well first of all, he’s the President of the United States. The American media covers what he does; that’s just the way it is. But in Lebanon and I think elsewhere in the Arab World as well, there were no expectations of the trip because the President specifically announced beforehand that there was no substantive purpose to the trip. The Arab World on the whole has long ago abandoned the notion that the US can mediate an Israeli-Palestinian peace. Twenty-some years of American-mediated negotiated have shown that this isn’t happening. So it was from an Arab point of view — well, let’s say the point of view of many Arabs, because there is a sort of variety of opinion — but from the point of view of many Arabs it was a public relations affair to reaffirm the Israeli-American alliance. And people weren’t all that interested in that. It was covered, it was noted that it happened, but there were no expectations and no excitement about it.

YME: Behind the scenes, do you think more political negotiation was occurring, or do you think it was definitely all just these happy PR images, like of Obama laying a wreath on the grave of Theodor Herzl?

JB: We don’t know what happens behind the scenes in private. My guess is that the main thing that happened behind the scenes is that the United States confirmed what appears to have been an agreement going back for some months, which is that the United States will not press Israel on settlements and other contentious issues in the occupied territories, and Israel will stand down on its demand that the United States attack Iran. The United States doesn’t want a war with Iran, and most Israeli high-level officials don’t think Israel could or should attack Iran.

YME: Is there anything else, about the trip or in general, that you’d like to add?

JB: The main thing in general is people have been very excited and enthusiastic about this, as if it actually means something, and that’s exactly what has been the problem for decades. The American media has mistaken process and formal procedure for substance, and there hasn’t been any substance, and it isn’t likely in the future.

Katie Gonzalez
Katie is a Haifa-based regular contributor for Your Middle East.
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