With an Israeli-Palestinian agreement unlikelier than ever in the past 20 years, why did President Barack Obama go to Israel? Where did you want he should go?

Apropos of this week’s Passover holiday, when Jews around the world relive their liberation from Egyptian slavery, Obama has made a personal Exodus of sorts, from his July 2009 Cairo speech to the Muslim world to his March 2013 arrival in Jerusalem.

Apart from Jordan, there aren’t many Arab venues for Obama to visit. Sectarian war is spreading from Syria to Lebanon and Iraq, and the governability of Egypt is questionable. The great personal project of the American president, namely reconciliation with the Muslim world, has disintegrated.

Two decisive changes in Obama’s stance towards Israel are widely noted. The first is that the president asked Israel to do nothing in particular prior to peace talks, in sharp contrast to his first-term push for a settlement freeze. The second was Obama’s endorsement of Israel’s self-understanding, namely that the modern State of Israel is the successor of the biblical Jewish kingdom and the historic homeland of the Jewish people.

For those of us who called attention to Obama’s anti-colonial bent, imprinted by a childhood spent partly in Indonesia and strong identification with a Muslim father and stepfather, this change is most welcome. Whatever Obama’s personal sympathies, he heads the American state, and the American state has interests. These interests are endangered by the emerging Sunni-Shi’ite war and the attendant threat of WMD proliferation. America has only one stable, powerful and reliable ally in the region, namely Israel. By process of elimination, Obama had nowhere else to go.

It’s hard to categorize Obama’s current policy stance. He long since abandoned the ”realism” of Robert Gates and Brent Scowcroft, and seems to have abandoned the idealism of his own foreign policy team. The departure of his human rights czarina Samantha Power in February suggests as much. If neo-conservativism is the outlook of a liberal who has been mugged, perhaps we should call this neo-realism.

If Obama has made his own Exodus from Cairo to Jerusalem, he still has to cross a metaphorical Red Sea in the case of Iran. Rabbinic tradition treats the biblical event as an existential leap; not until one of the Israelites waded into the Red Sea up to his neck did God part the waters for the Children of Israel. In itself, the Israel trip accomplished nothing. Obama did it because doing something, for example, intervening in Syria, would have been worse.

There is not a shred of evidence that Obama is any closer to taking the leap to neutralize Iran than at any time in the past. The late Robert Bartley, the editor of the Wall Street Journal, used to say that a hundred editorials on a subject were required to get serious public attention, so Asia Times’ readers may forgive for a repetition of the obvious: the Syrian mess and its extension into Lebanon and Syria are manageable if Iran no longer can stir trouble, but not otherwise.

An American shift towards Israel was inevitable, as I wrote in this space two years ago (see Israel the winner in the Arab revolts, Asia Times Online, April 12, 2012):

Civilian casualties are the currency of Middle East diplomacy. The military issue in the region has never been whether Israel had the power to crush its opponents, but whether it had permission to do so. … Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad and other Arab dictators have enhanced Israel’s strategic position by cheapening Arab life. No one paid much attention to the dozen and a half dead in Israel’s latest retaliatory strike in Gaza. At the US State Department briefing April 7 [2011], spokesman Mark Toner condemned the latest rocket attacks on Israel “in the strongest possible terms,” but said nothing about the Israeli response. That is a harbinger of things to come… Syria will only fracture further. Israel’s best course of action is to dig in its heels through the November 2012 US presidential elections while its prospective adversaries descend into chaos, and await the right opportunity to settle accounts with Hamas and Hezbollah.

As Syria disintegrates, Washington needs to coordinate intelligence, weapons interdiction and in the extreme case intervention with its border states. Iraq will not help, because it fears a victory by Sunni rebels more than any other outcome. Iraq’s Shi’ite Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki warned on February 28 that a rebel victory would ”engulf Iraq” by creating a ”haven for extremists”. [1]

A Sunni-dominated Syria, he fears, would ally with the ”Sunni Awakening” armed and funded by General David Petraeus during the ”surge” of 2007-2008, preventing Iraq’s Shi’ite majority from governing. That is not an idle concern.

That leaves Turkey, Jordan, and Israel. Turkey has tied itself in knots. It cannot intervene without confronting Syria’s 2 million Kurds, who have achieved an unprecedented degree of self-rule during the civil war. Ankara cannot claim leadership of the Sunni world without helping the rebels, but it cannot risk a breakup of the Syrian state without raising the prospect of Kurdish self-rule in Syria linking with the long-suffering Kurds of Iraq and Iran, and eventually with Turkey’s Kurdish minority.

The Muslim Brotherhood’s takeover in Egypt and the central role of the Brothers in the Syrian insurgency, meanwhile, leaves the Jordanian monarchy at risk. The country is small enough that American can keep King Abdullah in power if it tries hard enough.

What does America require in Syria? It is pointless to talk of limiting civilian casualties when both sides use atrocities as a way of stiffening the resolve of their combatants, who rightly fear terrible reprisals should they be defeated. The top priority is control Syria’s chemical weapons, and a secondary priority is to neutralize some of the nastier participants – Hezbollah and Iranian Revolutionary Guards elements on the government side, and al-Qaeda types on the rebel side.

Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham have prominently called for American boots on the ground in the event that Syria uses chemical weapons against the rebels. Graham said pon March 19,

Absolutely, you’ve got to get on the ground. There is no substitute for securing these weapons. I don’t care what it takes. We need partners in the region. But I’m here to say, if the choice is to send in troops to secure the weapons sites versus allowing chemical weapons to get in the hands of some of the most violent people in the world, I vote to cut this off before it becomes a problem. [2]

Just how the American military is supposed to accomplish this is unclear.

The only regional power with a track record in destroying Syrian weapons of mass destruction is Israel, of course, which destroyed Syria’s al-Kibar nuclear facility in September 2007. Israel presumably still has the best intelligence on Syria, with a nearly unlimited pool of Arabic translators to analyze communications from its northern neighbor, as well as nonpareil drone surveillance capability.

With the departure of defense minister Ehud Barak, the Obama administration lost its most reliable friend and ”moderating influence” in the Israeli cabinet. He is succeeded by Moshe Yaalon, a tough-minded former chief of staff.

The previous Netanyahu government leaned on ultra-Orthodox parties whose supporters are mainly religious quietists who do not serve in the armed forces. The present government shifts power away from the ultra-Orthodox to the growing national religious component of Israeli society, which already provides nearly half of the officers in the Israel Defense Forces. Its new party, Naftali Bennett’s Israel Home, has the critical housing ministry, which is responsible for settlements in Judea and Samaria.

President Obama might wish himself a golden era of Muslim democracy, but he isn’t going to get it, and by now he knows it. Turkey’s Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan might want to humiliate Israel and position himself as the next best thing to an Ottoman Sultan, but he isn’t going to get that, either, at least not anytime soon. What he might get is a blowup on his southern border and a regional war in which Turkey appears impotent and irrelevant. Turkey will have a hard time dominating the Arab world, which recalls with rancor centuries of Ottoman domination, and there is less of the Arab world to dominate by the week.

That is the background to Erdogan’s apparent acceptance of an apparent Israeli apology for the 2010 Mavi Marmara incident in exchange for restored diplomatic relations. Netanyahu pretended to apologize in a statement framed entirely in the subjunctive, and Erdogan immediately backed away from his initial commitment to restore diplomatic relations with Turkey and to end to the symbolic prosecution of Israeli senior officers.

This charade was enacted at the instance of President Obama, who want to seem like he is doing something about the Syrian mess.

We are left waiting at the shore of a strategic Red Sea. Reality may have pushed Obama to lean on Israel, his last remaining ally of consequence, but he has neither the nerve nor inclination to declaw Iran. Whether Israel might take action independently is beyond the competence of anyone outside the Israeli cabinet to judge.

1. Maliki warns Syria conflict could engulf Iraq, The Majalla, February 28, 2013.
2. See Huffington Post, March 19, 2013.