The limp, unimaginative speech that U.S. President Barack Obama delivered at the United Nations yesterday reflects how helpless the American president is in the face of Middle Eastern realities. There is no doubt that Obama fervently supports the establishment of a Palestinian state, or that he is delighted to show those who are fighting for their freedom in Arab countries that he is on their side.
There is also no doubt that Obama is frustrated by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's unresponsiveness to America's peace initiatives, as well as by the ongoing settlement expansion and the general impression that Israel's government disregards America's positions.
The Barack Obama of September 2011 is getting hit from all directions. The United States is not recovering from the recession. The American public is bitter and disappointed over his tepid leadership, and the Republican Party is determined to destroy him, even at the expense of America's clear interests.
With a 9 percent jobless rate and polls showing that most voters are not satisfied with his performance, it's not at all clear whether he will survive next year's presidential election. In his present situation, Obama cannot allow himself to make bold declarations that would put his relations with the American Jewish community at risk, undermine longstanding American policy and spark another confrontation with a Republican Party that is itching for a fight.
But beyond his specific political circumstances and the anemic nature of his speech, as well as the fact that Obama only devoted a small portion of it to the Palestinian issue, there are broader questions to be considered. Obama's weakness is not simply the weakness of one particular president. It's the weakness of an entire country that is entering the fourth year of a deep recession, a country governed by a corrupt and partially paralyzed political system, a country embroiled in wars it cannot win and that is being forced to confront the collapse of its own self-confidence.
How much longer will the United States be the right address when it comes to resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? How much longer can it permit itself to invest the effort and the billions of dollars required to solve complicated international problems? As it stands now, it looks like it won't be long until the United States has neither the interest nor the capacity to deal with tribal wars. America was not always the world's policeman, and there's no reason to believe it always will be.
Another question relates to the American Jewish community. Currently, Obama stands behind Israel in part out of his need to please American Jews, who traditionally support the Democrats and are an inexhaustible source of generous political contributions. But American Jewry, too, is undergoing a change, and will not remain a uniform pro-Israel bloc forever. There are now fewer and fewer Jews who automatically support Israel because they experienced the Holocaust and witnessed Israel's birth.
Moreover, broad segments of the American public are increasingly unhappy with Israel's policy in the territories and what they see as a lack of Israeli willingness to resolve the conflict.
So for now, the U.S. president is standing behind Israel's government: He is trying to put out all the diplomatic fires that have been ignited and advance Israeli-Palestinian negotiations. But just as is true of the Israeli-Palestinian situation on the ground, it's hard to know how long this status quo will survive.
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