At the end of her brief visit to the Middle East last week, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that the United States would need to deal with the numerous challenges flooding the region by being "smart, creative and courageous."
Unfortunately, at a time when the Middle East so desperately needs the guiding hand of a smart, creative and courageous superpower, the Obama administration is harnessing its entire inventory of these crucial characteristics to the struggle to remain in the White House. He is handling his relationship with the Middle East as he would approach a porcupine: very, very carefully.
In an article in the Boston Globe last week, Prof. Nicholas Burns of Harvard University said that the political crisis in Egypt, the revolution in Syria, the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians, the terror, and above all, the Iranian threat, are issues that are critical to America's future.
"Who says foreign policy is an afterthought in an election year?" asks the man who was an undersecretary of state and a U.S. envoy to NATO.
Yet each of these issues, taken separately and together, are many times more critical to the future of the State of Israel. One has to ask if an election year in the United States, or even in Israel, is an excuse for taking cover in a refrigerator when the neighborhood is burning?
What smart, creative or courageous move can we attribute to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu from when Mohamed Bouazizi went up in flames in Tunisia over 18 months ago and Moshe Silman set himself alight in Tel Aviv last week? The prime minister hasn't suggested that the new Egyptian regime play a central role in the Palestinian track, let alone speak to them about promoting the Arab peace initiative. He hasn't expressed a willingness to reconsider his attitude toward a Palestinian unity government that includes Hamas, or the policy of trying to separate Gaza and the West Bank in a transparent (and hopeless) effort to paste Gaza back onto Egypt.
What smart, creative or courageous step has the Netanyahu government taken with regard to relations with Turkey?
It's true that Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan doesn't harbor much love or warmth for Israel. Indeed, the extreme Turkish organization IHH, which initiated the ill-fated Gaza flotilla over two years ago, contributed to the tragic confrontation on the deck of the Mavi Marmara. It's possible that Erdogan's stubborn insistance on an Israeli apology is liable to serve as an opening to other demands as well, such as totally removing the blockade of Gaza.
But other than convincing the Israeli public that the Turks are scumbags and that we're right, as always, what has Netanyahu done to repair the rift with Ankara? So what if the American secretary of state asked the prime minister to reconsider the request for an apology. What Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman will say about "kowtowing" to the Turks is much more important.
The approaching end of Syrian President Bashar Assad could provide an opportunity to forge an anti-Iran coalition that would include all of Israel's neighbors - Egypt, Jordan, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the Palestinians. It's determined position against Iran, the primary patron of the Alawite regime in Syria, makes Turkey a natural ally of the United States (and Israel ) in the effort to prevent Iran from becoming a nuclear power. Turkey's support of the Syrian opposition is liable to bestow upon it a central role in fashioning the new regime that will arise in Damascus and influence its relations with Israel. In the not-so-distant past, during the days of the Olmert government, Ankara mediated between Jerusalem and Damascus.
More than 20 years ago, even as he was starting to gear up to run for a second term in the White House, the elder President George Bush decided to exploit the defeat of Saddam Hussein in the first Gulf War and establish an international coalition for peace. He knew that opportunities, like crises, don't wait for the next election. Thus Bush managed to get Yitzhak Shamir, the most right-wing prime minister Israel had had until Netanyahu, to the Madrid Conference, where he sat next to leaders of Arab states.
Netanyahu's eulogy for Shamir at his grave demonstrated that all his intelligence, creativity and courage could come up with is a foreign policy that sounds like it's based on the old Jewish joke: Either the nobleman will die, or the dog will die.
Meanwhile, what will happen to us?
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