Obama and the Middle East: Reading Election Tea Leaves

In Israel, Barack Obama's victory has raised the question: "Is it good for Israel?" The answer depends on several yet unknown factors.

1) Who will win the Israeli elections?

As previous American administrations have learned, without Israeli cooperation the peace process cannot move forward. If Kadima wins and Tzippi Livni forms a coalition, Obama's election could be a watershed, as he will have an Israeli government that wants to continue the peace process. On the other hand, if Likud wins and Benjamin Netanyahu becomes Prime Minister, it is hard to see significant forward movement -- and Obama may not want to waste any political energy. Obama's victory might even influence the outcome of the Israeli election in Livni's favor. Israelis may want to avoid serious tension with the United States, their greatest friend and ally, something that would occur with Netanyahu at the helm.

2) Who will be the next Palestinian President?

The 2009 Palestinian elections will determine the next Palestinian leader. If current Chairman Mahmoud Abbas wins, then the Palestinians will have a leader who wants peace but is too weak to make significant concessions. President Obama might be able to offer economic carrots to Abbas, but the real problem is a lack of political courage and the ability to persuade his people that true peace can only come by relinquishing the "Dream of Refugee Return."  Other younger and more determined Palestinian leaders might be able to succeed, if they are willing. Here too Obama has to wait for the election outcome.

3) Does Obama have street credibility with the Arab world?

The answer is obvious: more than any other entering President. With a middle name of Hussein and his paternal connection to Islam (he is not a Muslim) Obama will be viewed as a more honest broker than previous Presidents. For Israelis, the appointment of Rahm Emanuel, the son of an Irgun fighter, as White House Chief of Staff, will quell suspicions of Obama having a "pro-Arab bias". Thus, it is possible that all sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict can feel a measure of confidence in the American President.

4) What about other hot spots connected to Israel?

Here Obama's approach to international relations brings good news.  Without a doubt he will encourage Israeli negotiations with Syria, and the Syrians too will be less wary of dealing with Israel and an American administration that does not call it part of the "axis of evil". And if Israel and Syria reach an agreement, Lebanon will be in the bargain too. That leaves the Palestinians, and most important of all: Iran.

5) Whither Iran?

Once again, the answer is to be partly found in the election tea leaves: Iranian elections!  If Iran's current administration returns, then Obama's promised discussions with them will be short. If a more "moderate" President is chosen -- and perhaps that can occur precisely because Obama is far less threatening of Iranian sovereignty -- then there is an outside chance that Obama can diffuse the crisis. Moreover, if Russia and China conclude that Obama made a real effort to talk to the Iranians and came up empty, greater U.N. sanctions would be in the offing - and after that perhaps "sterner" measures from the Obama Administration. Israeli-Syrian negotiations could be influential here, if they include conditions that Syria break with terrorist regimes.  Iran then might feel the diplomatic noose tightening and perhaps seriously consider a negotiated settlement.

6) What about the price of oil?

If oil prices stay depressed or drop even more, Iran's economy will be deeply in trouble - another incentive for possible serious negotiations regarding its nuclear program. What does Obama have to do with this? Any significant alternative energy program initiated by the Americans would have repercussions in the oil market, even if the actual impact on production and prices wouldn't be felt for years. The perception of eventual Middle East power decline cannot but move the Middle East power brokers to try and clear up their political and economic muddles.

In short, Obama is a huge "Joker" thrown into a complex game of Middle East poker. It is his hand to play, but he will need a few other good cards to succeed.

Professor Lehman-Wilzig is the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar at Brown University. he teahces in the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University (Israel) where he served as chairman (2004-07). He writes a weekly blog on Israeli matters Israelity.
In Israel, Barack Obama's victory has raised the question: "Is it good for Israel?" The answer depends on several yet unknown factors.

1) Who will win the Israeli elections?

As previous American administrations have learned, without Israeli cooperation the peace process cannot move forward. If Kadima wins and Tzippi Livni forms a coalition, Obama's election could be a watershed, as he will have an Israeli government that wants to continue the peace process. On the other hand, if Likud wins and Benjamin Netanyahu becomes Prime Minister, it is hard to see significant forward movement -- and Obama may not want to waste any political energy. Obama's victory might even influence the outcome of the Israeli election in Livni's favor. Israelis may want to avoid serious tension with the United States, their greatest friend and ally, something that would occur with Netanyahu at the helm.

2) Who will be the next Palestinian President?

The 2009 Palestinian elections will determine the next Palestinian leader. If current Chairman Mahmoud Abbas wins, then the Palestinians will have a leader who wants peace but is too weak to make significant concessions. President Obama might be able to offer economic carrots to Abbas, but the real problem is a lack of political courage and the ability to persuade his people that true peace can only come by relinquishing the "Dream of Refugee Return."  Other younger and more determined Palestinian leaders might be able to succeed, if they are willing. Here too Obama has to wait for the election outcome.

3) Does Obama have street credibility with the Arab world?

The answer is obvious: more than any other entering President. With a middle name of Hussein and his paternal connection to Islam (he is not a Muslim) Obama will be viewed as a more honest broker than previous Presidents. For Israelis, the appointment of Rahm Emanuel, the son of an Irgun fighter, as White House Chief of Staff, will quell suspicions of Obama having a "pro-Arab bias". Thus, it is possible that all sides of the Israeli-Arab conflict can feel a measure of confidence in the American President.

4) What about other hot spots connected to Israel?

Here Obama's approach to international relations brings good news.  Without a doubt he will encourage Israeli negotiations with Syria, and the Syrians too will be less wary of dealing with Israel and an American administration that does not call it part of the "axis of evil". And if Israel and Syria reach an agreement, Lebanon will be in the bargain too. That leaves the Palestinians, and most important of all: Iran.

5) Whither Iran?

Once again, the answer is to be partly found in the election tea leaves: Iranian elections!  If Iran's current administration returns, then Obama's promised discussions with them will be short. If a more "moderate" President is chosen -- and perhaps that can occur precisely because Obama is far less threatening of Iranian sovereignty -- then there is an outside chance that Obama can diffuse the crisis. Moreover, if Russia and China conclude that Obama made a real effort to talk to the Iranians and came up empty, greater U.N. sanctions would be in the offing - and after that perhaps "sterner" measures from the Obama Administration. Israeli-Syrian negotiations could be influential here, if they include conditions that Syria break with terrorist regimes.  Iran then might feel the diplomatic noose tightening and perhaps seriously consider a negotiated settlement.

6) What about the price of oil?

If oil prices stay depressed or drop even more, Iran's economy will be deeply in trouble - another incentive for possible serious negotiations regarding its nuclear program. What does Obama have to do with this? Any significant alternative energy program initiated by the Americans would have repercussions in the oil market, even if the actual impact on production and prices wouldn't be felt for years. The perception of eventual Middle East power decline cannot but move the Middle East power brokers to try and clear up their political and economic muddles.

In short, Obama is a huge "Joker" thrown into a complex game of Middle East poker. It is his hand to play, but he will need a few other good cards to succeed.

Professor Lehman-Wilzig is the Schusterman Visiting Israeli Scholar at Brown University. he teahces in the Political Studies Department at Bar-Ilan University (Israel) where he served as chairman (2004-07). He writes a weekly blog on Israeli matters Israelity.