The Zeitgeist Politics

Global Politics with a focus on The Middle East

Why Obama's silence on Gaza is justified

with 8 comments

Much has been said about Obama’s “deafening silence” in relation to Israel’s war on Gaza and much has been made of it, mostly in negative terms. Many idealists like me who are sick and tired of the bloodshed in the Middle East have been holding out for a real change in the relationship between Israel and it’s superpower sponsor the United States. However we must look at Obama’s silence, and the general silence of his Administration, as the strategic move that it is, and the correct one at that.

Obama’s administration has typically followed the “one president at a time” policy when fielding questions about Gaza. Critics were quick to point out that Obama had broken this policy on occasion, like when condemning the recent terrorist attacks in Mumbai. However these two things are not comparable. Regardless of what your opinions on the current conflict in Gaza are, it is most certainly a sensative diplomatic issue.

Obama is simply being smart. We know the man is a pragmatist and is not one for empty rhetoric, especially when that rhetoric can actually be damaging to the prospects of positive progress.

Let’s look at the options. The international community is not yet united enough against Israel to warrant leaving it out in the cold completely like Apartheid South Africa and such a move is certainly not on the cards for the USA where the political climate means an immense amount of power in the hands of Jewish and Pro-Israeli lobbies. This would make such an extreme move political suicide, which is why Obama went to great lengths to prove his Pro-Israeli credentials in the lead-up to the election.

No, in order for things to change in the Middle East, Obama will need to get Israel on side and he knows that. President Bush had already established a relationship with Israel (and as evidenced by recent events, a pretty close personal friendship with Ehud Olmert). Obama and Hillary Clinton have not had enough time to establish themselves similarly. Obama also knows that Israel is wary of him and his administration’s policy towards them, a probable part of the reason why they chose this December to attack Gaza (and not wait longer). 

I believe that for real change to happen in the Middle East, the Israel Government needs a good friend to step in and tell it that what it’s doing is not only morally wrong but also unlikely to provide a positive outcome for Israeli security either. I think Obama knows this also and will focus on building a good enough relationship with Israel to be able to step in and be that friend, rather than engaging in unnecessary sabre-rattling to please a rabid media looking for controversy. Any sort of strong statement or condemnation by him now would achieve absolutely nothing in real terms, so tell me, why should Obama take the bait?


Written by alexlobov

January 14, 2009 at 11:32 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

Tagged with , ,

8 Responses

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  1. I respectfully disagree with a number of things you have said:

    1. On Obama ‘generally’ following the ‘one president at a time’ strategy.

    This is in fact the only current issue where he has not issued a statement. His general strategy, thus, is apparently quite the opposite. The American (and global economy), energy, his replacement in the US Senate, Mumbai, etc. In every issue, he has taken a reasoned, measured stand. Except this one.

    2. That Israel needs a good friend if it is expected to change.

    Israel has had good, friendly relations with pretty much all US presidents. In essence, thus, they have a had a good friend in the US for the past 60 years. If they are expected to change, this logically should be the first thing that should be changed, no?

    I however agree with you that the world, and the US, is not ready or united enough for a change in US policy vis-a-vis Israel. I personally think people (including myself) got a bit carried away by expecting Obama to highlight a different Israel strategy, considering his strong pro statements in the runup and the general pro sentiment in this country.


    January 15, 2009 at 12:01 am

  2. Hey Sohaib, thanks for the comment!

    1. You’re right he has made a lot of statements but you should also notice that a lot of the things you mentioned he already outlined his stance fairly explicitly in his policy statements during the election. Especially on domestic issues, there is no diplomatic harm in announcing his stance, however there is on the issue of Gaza and that is why he has chosen to wait this one out.

    2. I don’t think I made clear what I meant by my “good friend” comment. By “good friend” I mean not only a golf club buddy or a personal friend in the you-and-me sense. I mean a real “good friend” is someone who will back you up when you need it but in private tell you when you’re wrong. That is what has been missing from Israel’s relationship with Bush, for example (and I can’t comment on past presidents as I have not looked deeply enough into it). Obama has the potential to say, from the perspective of a “good friend” – ‘hey, i love you guys and all but really what you’re doing will achieve nothing positive, here’s what i think you should do’. That sort of influence could be not only handy but essential in bringing Israel back to the bargaining table, especially if the right-wing Netanyahu is elected as PM this month.


    January 15, 2009 at 12:09 am

  3. Alex, while Obama’s theory of ‘one president at a time’ makes sense – one does need to realize that Obama’s silence has only caused him much-needed points in the Middle East. That cautious hope that many in the ME (as we have ourselves evidenced, with the outpouring of love for Obama during the primaries) attached to an Obama administration seems to have gone. As Sohaib said, Obama hasn’t been silent on anything else, and that is something that Palestine has picked up on as well (I think it was the Angry Arab News Service that highlighted the ‘non-silence’ on Mumbai)

    I actually think an Obama/Clinton foreign policy in the Middle East may work well – simply because Bill Clinton had a lot of goodwill in the region after the Jordan/Israel peace treaty and his work with the Wye Accords. But Bill’s frustration with Israel did manifest at several points (Queen Noor’s autobiography has more on this, especially in reference to the Wye Accords). And while you’re right that Obama may be able to pull Israel aside and tell them what they’re doing wrong, one does need to realize that no President can stand up to Israel and get away with it. There will be massive ramifications at home, given the power of the AIPAC. Maybe I’m being too pessimistic, but I don’t think there is anything Obama can do with this, other than follow (to a toned down extent) Bush’s policy on the ME. If anyone needs to take a stand, it has to be the Middle Eastern countries: but that hasn’t happened in decades. If Obama could get the ME countries on board and then forge a strategy to get Israel to rationalize, that may work.


    January 15, 2009 at 8:38 am

  4. Obama looks like he’s going to be another puppet for Israel… until he proves himself otherwise. I give him 3 months from now.

    Mohamed Ali

    January 15, 2009 at 12:41 pm

  5. Saba,

    I’m sure Obama and his administration know that the battle for hearts & minds in the Middle East is important and, equally, I’m sure they know that those hearts & minds are rapidly being lost. I think they see it as a necessary cost of the silence because, as I mentioned in my post, I don’t think there is any realistic alternative to remaining silent. I think if I was in his position, I would do the same. A condemnation from Obama would change nothing right now however silence, relationship building and cautious diplomacy is the only thing that could possibly achieve results.

    In relation to Obama not having been silent on anything else, as I mentioned, most of the things he has been vocal on are either domestic policy (the economy, taxes, health care), foreign policy that he already announced during the campaign (engage Iran, pull out of Iraq, bolster Afghanistan) or not seen as diplomatically sensitive (condemning the terrorists behind the Mumbai attacks). If you look at these things it’s fairly obvious where the difference lies on speaking out now about Gaza and Israel/Palestine. It’s a complex issue.

    As you mentioned, AIPAC is powerful, and there is no need for Obama to destroy any chance of support he has before he is even inaugurated. Like I said, cautious diplomacy is what is required, especially from the perspective that his advice would be for Israel’s own good which I think is true as the campaign they are currently running is unlikely to achieve anything positive for Israel in the medium to long term (security wise).

    Obama won’t get the ME countries on board in an aggressive manner because that would be seen as taking sides and isolating Israel. That would not be productive. Israel by far the most powerful nation in the region, the chances of all the Arab states agreeing on anything are tiny and even if they did, Israel would still crush them in a military conflict (we do not want to see that happen, remember) so I think the best chance Obama has is to influence Israel directly to make the necessary concessions.

    Mate, I understand your skepticism, I really do. I felt the same way, disillusioned and dejected before I sat down to think about it. I know that in a perfect world Obama and every other sane person would condemn what is going on but the world is not perfect, far from it, and we have to work with it. Thinking pragmatically, because what we want is peace right? Not anger and hate that leads to more bloodshed, right? So thinking pragmatically and all factors included, what would you do if you were Obama?


    January 15, 2009 at 5:42 pm

  6. Thanks for the link Sohaib, interesting read.

    Although I absolutely Agree with Cohen, the lack of diversity on Obama’s advisory team is a problem. However I disagree with the amount of significance Cohen has put on the experiences of the people that Obama has appointed and on Cohen’s ruminations on where this could take US foreign policy.

    Firstly the fact that they’re Jewish is irrelevant. I have a hunch that Cohen is himself Jewish (as evidenced by his surname) and besides there are a lot of Jews and even Israelis that are smart enough to understand the complex situation and that a two-state solution is the order of the day. Let’s remember that Jew, and even Israeli, does not always equal unequivocal right-wing Zionist. Google B’Tselem (too lazy to link) and you’ll see what I mean.

    Secondly the fact that some of them come from failed attempts at peace and have made staunchly pro-Israel statements is also not as important as it seems at first glance. Politicians are flexible and not stupid. Often they do understand what is really going on but for the sake of populism have to do one thing and say another. Additionally, past failures do not preclude future successes. Change does not mean appointing an entire team of rookies. How many personal development/leadership books/speeches have we read/heard that say failure is not an obstacle? I don’t see why these people should be judged any differently to how we motivate ourselves.

    Finally I don’t think Cohen’s article has much to do with my point of view on the matter, Cohen isn’t so much suggesting that there is no hope or that Obama has failed before he has even begun. He is simply suggesting that Obama’s appointments to his FP team should be more diverse, both in experience and background. I agree. However I still stand by my points above.


    January 15, 2009 at 7:53 pm

  7. […] The fact of the matter is, change in this region is going to be politically difficult for any US President and waiting for miracles to happen is counter-productive. This system of two party democracy means that any party in power will have to somehow ocus on consolidating power, budgets have to be approved by Congress, as do many other things, so the matter is not in Obama’s hands alone and he has to be politically clever about how he goes about it, as he was during the Gaza debacle. […]

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