He came to say goodbye
President Obama's visit attests to Washington's strategic choice: to neglect the Middle East peace process.
The U.S. president is coming to town at the best possible time for us. It's the eve of Passover, there are amazing sales at the supermarkets, a government whose members are still unfamiliar with their powers or their offices, an extreme right atmosphere with touches of moderate right, Hamas is not firing Qassam rockets, the Palestinian Authority is collapsing. All in all a stable and familiar routine that doesn't invite dramas.
President Barack Obama doesn't have to commit himself to anything, propose anything, pressurize or convince or threaten anyone. The U.S. president will be a guest: He will speak, shake hands and finally chalk up a visit to Israel. He won't have to visit here again during his second term.
This is not an American gesture, but deliberate policy. Slowly but surely the United States is withdrawing into itself. Obama's success does not lie in involvement in processes or in the solution of conflicts, but in fleeing from them. In December 2011 he withdrew U.S. forces from Iraq, and America's involvement in the country it liberated from the rule of the late President Saddam Hussein is gradually disappearing.
The U.S. forces will leave Afghanistan next year, and as happened after its liberation from Soviet occupation in 1989, it will be transferred to the rule of tribes and Islamist movements. After the assassination of Osama bin Laden, Afghanistan is a burden.
In Syria two years have passed since the beginning of the murderous revolt, and Washington is still trying to decide whether to arm the rebels or to make do with a delivery of 200,000 prepared meals for the Free Syrian Army fighters.
Washington is treating Egypt like a homeless person lying at the threshold of the Bank of America: a little emergency aid, a pat on the shoulder and some tongue clicking. "The great hope brought by Obama in his speech on June 4, 2009 at Cairo University has evaporated," asserted an editorial this week in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat.
This interpretation is off the mark. The absence of strategy is the strategy. When a superpower decides to lift anchor and sail away from the centers of conflict, it engages in farewell visits or a show of indifference rather than a strategy of involvement. Obama's visit to Israel is a part of this farewell journey. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not a strategic threat like that between North and South Korea, India and Pakistan or Taiwan and China. Solving it will not produce a New Middle East, mainly because the New Middle East is itself trying to find its way, separate from the Palestinians.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians will not cause a chain reaction that will lead Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar or Algeria to look for a building for their embassies in Jerusalem. The Arab front against Iran, insofar as it exists, does not condition its rivalry with Iran on the solution of the Palestinian problem. Most Arab countries have their own account to settle with Iran.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become dwarfed over the years, and has evolved into an internal political dispute in Israel and one of the focal points of the political battle between Fatah and Hamas. Right and left are measured by their theoretical willingness to give up territories, rather than by their determination to act to end the occupation. Resistance or concession (or an armed struggle versus collaboration) still distinguish between the two political factions of the Palestinian public. For the United States, this conflict has become the main index of its power and status in the Middle East.
The United States will not be released from this burden as long as it is thought to have a significant influence on Israel's policy. It will be able to shake off this dependency between its status in the region and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict only if it solves the conflict or distances itself from it. Paradoxically, it is Obama's visit, at the most unfeasible time for getting a diplomatic process started, which attests to Washington's strategic choice. Obama is not coming to make peace, but to say goodbye.