Obama plays a Long Game in the Middle East

President Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu The Barack and Bibi show may be awkward, considering how much they seemed to have loathed one another in the past, but it has produced results

Related Stories

Tourists may wander where they will, and when US President Barack Obama visits Jordan's glorious, ancient city of Petra, he will not make any loaded statement about America's attitude to the Second Century empire that thrived there.

Not so in Israel. There, it was not just words that had to be parsed. Sightseeing is message-making too.

Mr Obama went to look at the Dead Sea Scrolls - a reminder that Jews lived here thousands of years ago.

He went to the grave of Theodor Herzl, the founder of modern Zionism, having declared a Jewish homeland in the Holy Land was redemption.

Before the visit, several American commentators urged him to learn to speak Israeli - now his fluency is almost frightening.

The Bibi and Barack show, a series of awkward joshing jests between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Mr Obama - two men who had given every impression they loathed each other in the past - may make the squeamish squirm.

But faking it can lead to feeling it. Mr Obama has already won an apology to the Turkish prime minister from Mr Netanyahu for the 2010 raid on a flotilla of Gaza-bound activists, and there is some hope he might do something to further the possibility of peace talks.

But Mr Obama's embrace of a word - Zionism - will have other results too.

For some in the region it is not the expression of a dream but a deadly insult to be spat out.

The long game?

Mr Obama knows that. He knows the Arab world already felt he had let it down. Now he has confirmed what they feared he was: an American president.

But - and this is typical of Mr Obama - he seems to feel that now that he has explained it, Israelis will get it. The values of Zionism are universal: a people deserve freedom, deserve a land. Get it? Not. Just. You.

Mr Obama has huge faith in the power of his own words. That is not said in simple mockery, but sometimes he seems to be happier as a prophet than as politician.

One of his favourite quotes, from civil rights legend Martin Luther King Jr, is: "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice."

Mr Obama seems never happier than when tugging on that moral arc, even if it springs back in his face.

He urged young Israelis to tell their politicians to show courage - he said exactly the same to the American people recently, for instance about outlawing assault rifles, an attempt that has just fallen at the first Senate hurdle as he surely knew it would.

In Jerusalem he observed, rather ruefully I thought, that King, like Moses, never got to see the promised land.

Neither cynics nor partisans fully understand the magnitude of Mr Obama's ambition - nor the length of his game.

Mark Mardell Article written by Mark Mardell Mark Mardell Presenter, The World This Weekend

Trident question comes to the surface

In 2016, the new government will have to decide whether to continue to invest in the Trident programme - and this could be a key issue in a hung Parliament, says the BBC's Mark Mardell.

Read full article

More on This Story

Related Stories


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 232.

    230 I definitely detect strong jealousy in your postings. Are you saying Hamas should give up home made rockets, suicide vests, and other primitive ways of illegally killing people for drones too? I don't think they can. I don't think they spent enough time as kids playing with model remote controlled airplanes. They'll just have to stick with what they know for their illegal killing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 231.

    Well done Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu for your apology to the Turkish Prime Minister. Although what happened was unfortunate... the relationship has been restored. "Do not reprove a scoffer, lest he hate you; Reprove a wise one, and he loves you" Proverbs 9:8. 'If you admit that you were wrong is to declare that you are wiser now than before.'

  • Comment number 230.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 229.

    There hasn't been a shred of evidence that Iran is working on nuclear weapons and Iran has signed up to the NPT, unlike Israel. The Iranian scare story is being whipped up by Israel to distract attention from their military occupation and violations of international law in occupied Palestine.

  • rate this

    Comment number 228.

    227 I think it was clear US Commander-in-Chief Obama watched the assault on Osama Bin Laden's compound live in real time on TV and was calling the shots. Not only did he find it tense and exciting, I'll bet when he writes his memoirs he'll say it was the best television program he ever saw in his entire life. You can find lists of US weapons (except the top secret ones of course) on the internet.


Comments 5 of 232


Features & Analysis

Elsewhere on the BBC

  • Audi R8Need for speed

    Audi unveils its fastest production car ever - ahead of its Geneva debut


  • A robot holding a table legClick Watch

    The robots who build flat-pack furniture - teaching machines to work collaboratively

Copyright © 2015 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.