Recent events, like Monday’s U.S. presidential debate, and the General Assembly at the UN, where both Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas spoke last week, cast a light onto the future of international geopolitics while signaling the twilight of President Obama’s tenure. “A nation ringed by walls would only imprison itself,” said Obama during his last UNGA address. “We must make sure the benefits of integration is globally shared.”
He and Netanyahu, after much rancor, would later meet and shake hands and smile for cameras. Soon, Obama will leave office and probably play lots of golf and plan libraries and give speeches at places that can afford him; Netanyahu’s fourth premiership has only just begin. And even though progress towards a solution (two-state or otherwise) to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has yet to be determined, that issue, which is typically front and center (Bibi and Abbas have addressed the UNGA 19 times), found itself taking a backseat to other such issues last week, and beyond. “[The conflict] has become a side show as Mr. Netanyahu and Mr. Abbas compete for attention against seemingly more urgent crises like the civil war in Syria and the threat from the Islamic State,” wrote Peter Baker, the New York Times Jerusalem chief.
This, wrote Walter Russell Mead in The American Interest, is a disaster for the Palestinian cause and exactly what Netanyahu wants. That the Israeli-Palestinian issue has been seemingly put on the media (and foreign policy) backburner, having been “replaced” with the Syrian crisis and ISIS-related terrorism, is, Mead argues, symbolic of why Netanyahu excels at his job while “President Obama has been a terrible foreign policy president.”
In Asia, in Africa, in Latin America, Israel’s diplomacy is moving from strength to strength. Virtually every Arab and Middle Eastern leader thinks that Bibi is smarter and stronger than President Obama, and as American prestige across the Middle East has waned under Obama, Israel’s prestige—even among people who hate it—has grown. Bibi’s reset with Russia, unlike Obama’s, actually worked. His pivot to Asia has been more successful than Obama’s. He has had far more success building bridges to Sunni Muslims than President Obama, and both Russia and Iran take Bibi and his red lines much more seriously than they take Obama’s expostulations and pious hopes.
Mead goes on to call Obama an ‘aspiring realist’ versus Netanyahu, who’s a practicing realist. “Obama, despite the immense power of the country he leads, has been unable to gain the necessary respect from leaders like Putin and Xi that would permit the pragmatic relationships he wanted to build,” he writes. Whereas Bibi “has a practical relationship with Putin…[and] has stronger, deeper relationships with India, China and Japan than at any time in the past… Asia may well replace Europe as Israel’s primary trade and investment partners as these relationships develop.”
Inevitably, all these developments undercut the salience of the Palestinian issue for world politics and even for Arab politics and they strengthen Israel’s position in the region and beyond. Obama has never really grasped this; Netanyahu has based his strategy on it.
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Jonathan Zalman is a writer and teacher based in Brooklyn.