The Middle East: America wants out

Who won the recent shooting war between Israel and Hamas? The answer is irrelevant. Personally, I think Israel won the war because it was able to defend itself with the Iron Dome, suffering minimal casualties. But the real story of this war is America’s shift in foreign policy.

As the conflict escalated to the point where 75,000 Israeli reservists were waiting to be called up, America and the rest of the international community defended Israel’s right to protect itself but warned that a ground operation would be ill-advised. Meanwhile, the players were talking about a ceasefire; this time, however, the United States took a back seat to Egypt. Having affirmed Israel’s right to self-defense and after urging restraint on both sides, President Barack Obama handed matters over to his State Department, which worked largely behind the scenes.

After that, it was a regional show. President Mohammed Morsi, whose allies in the Muslim Brotherhood are closely linked to Hamas, made — along with UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon — the necessary moves to halt the escalation of hostilities. Only after reports of a ceasefire emerged did Obama send Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Cairo to help conclude the final deal.

If a ceasefire holds, this can be considered a first in the Middle East. At least, it offers the clearest signal yet of Obama’s intentions toward the region during his second term. On Israel, Obama has learned that the region’s leaders have to actively seek their own paths out of the crises now spreading across the region — the U.S. can’t do it for them. The time when Israel could wait for the U.S. to force the first moves in peace processes is over.

That might be great news to those on the Israeli right who have never sought peace with the Palestinians, nor tolerated the idea of sacrificing land to the two-state solution. It might also suit the purposes of the region’s many sub-state actors, emboldened by what appears to be a lack of U.S. sanctions on their actions against American allies in the region (Israel, Turkey and the Gulf monarchies) or in partnership with them, as with the Syrian opposition groups armed directly or indirectly by Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

Up to now, it’s been standard practice for many Middle Eastern players to blame the U.S. and Israel for their problems, while expecting the Americans to be present in the region to deal with the fallout. Even opponents of the U.S., such as Iran, probably expected more of a response from Washington to their public declarations and regional maneuvering.

The International Energy Agency’s annual outlook report on energy futures predicts the U.S. can be producing more oil than Saudi Arabia by 2017, offering Obama the quick exit from the Middle East he’s looking for.

But if Israel and the Palestinians are to be left to their own fates, Europe will have to take a hand. For as long as anyone can remember, the Europeans have been bankrolling the declining Palestinian Authority. The EU has since lost its justification for its annual one billion euros in subsidies, which they claim is leverage to help the Palestinians reach a negotiated deal with Israel. The recent vote at the UN that gave the Palestinians non-member observer status also gave the peace process another twist; the belief now is that Israel will not voluntarily give them the statehood they are seeking.

Whatever avenue the Israelis and the Palestinians take to resolve their issues, it seems the Americans will only be there to add their stamp of approval — they won’t go through the process of working out differences. The United States has problems enough of its own.


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