Opinion |

Obama’s Last Chance

The president failed the crucial test of stopping Assad; in the month he has left in office, will he step up to save the two-state solution? | Opinion

Alon Liel, former Israeli Foreign Ministry director general, whose talk with Breaking the Silence was secretly recorded by a right-group and published by Yedioth Ahronoth.
Alon Liel
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U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 24, 2014.
U.S. President Barack Obama speaks during the 69th Session of the UN General Assembly at the United Nations in New York on September 24, 2014.Credit: AFP
Alon Liel, former Israeli Foreign Ministry director general, whose talk with Breaking the Silence was secretly recorded by a right-group and published by Yedioth Ahronoth.
Alon Liel

The day that Barack Obama was elected president of the United States eight years ago was one of the happiest days of my life. I don’t remember if I learned about Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King or Nelson Mandela in school, but later on, when I heard about their struggles against aggressive discrimination (I actually was privileged to work with Mandela), I got the bug. Obama’s victory seemed to be a direct continuation of those giants’ struggle. I thought Obama behaved perfectly and said all the right things in his speeches. His strong belief in the power of diplomacy also excited me.

When Obama visited Israel in 2013, I ran to the International Convention Center in Jerusalem to hear him. It was a magnificent speech. I was like an excited child; I responded to almost every sentence with applause and even an occasional cheer.

It was half a year after that visit that the doubts began. It started on August 31, 2013. Syrian President Bashar Assad had long ago overreached with his chemical weapons and Obama justifiably decided to take military action. The president and Secretary of State John Kerry made an explicit announcement to this effect. I thought it was a good idea after all the diplomatic efforts to halt Assad had failed.

Mandela in his time wrote about the transition to a violent struggle. “Would it not be better to guide this violence ourselves, according to principles where we saved lives by attacking symbols of oppression, and not people?” he wrote. “If we did not take the lead now, I said, we would soon be latecomers.” Obama’s decision to attack, which under those circumstances would have brought down Assad, looked crucial. I particularly thought that a president who was so averse to violence would get broad support for a justified and appropriate decision.

Even as I was waxing enthusiastic, the U-turn came. Obama hesitated and asked Congress for approval. The rest is history. There was no attack; instead there was the deal that saved Assad physically and politically. Subsequently – the terrible Syrian disaster, with its regional and global consequences.

All of Obama’s eight years, with all his achievements, were to me overshadowed by that U-turn. It was a test. The destroyers were positioned off the Syrian coast, the finger was on the trigger of the missile launchers, and the sights were trained on Assad’s palace. Today, when even Aleppo has fallen, innumerable commentators have said that was the moment when the West fell.

You didn’t need a doctorate in international relations to understand this as it was happening. In Moscow and Tehran they understood it well. They saw a U.S. president incapable of pulling the trigger and they organized accordingly, particularly in the Syrian context, but not only. The rest is known.

Toward the end of his term, Obama again finds himself at a historic crossroads. Donald Trump is the man replacing him, Europe is being dragged rightward, and the Israeli right isn’t bothering to hide its joy. Everyone knows where these circumstances will lead the Israeli-Palestinian conflict; it is racing toward a single, binational state, the end of Israel as a Jewish and democratic state.

There’s only one man on earth who can prevent this and his name is Barack Obama. The Israeli-Palestinian issue can still get on the agenda of the UN Security Council before he leaves office. Will he have enough courage to save the two-state solution and prevent the establishment of a binational state, an idea that was the nightmare of anyone Obama has learned from, everyone who surrounds him and his own nightmare as well?

In the coming month, we’ll know.

The writer teaches at Tel Aviv University’s international program in conflict resolution and mediation.

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