What Should the Middle East Expect from Obama’s Second Term?

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Ayman Oghanna / Corbis

A barber watches the results of the U.S. presidential election in Istanbul, Nov. 7, 2012

There have been some indications that Iran’s leaders may be open to a deal under which they accept caps on the levels and extent of their enrichment of uranium, and more intrusive inspections of their nuclear facilities, in exchange for relief from the choke hold of the extensive and tightening sanctions regime overseen by the Obama Administration. Talks over the prospects for a deal can be expected to get under way shortly, although it remains to be seen just how flexible Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei is willing to be — and for that matter, how flexible Obama is able to be: He may have secured re-election, but Israel has long made clear its skepticism toward diplomacy with Iran, and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu can be expected to continue trying to apply political pressure to limit the terms and extent of U.S. engagement with the Iranians.

Obama’s re-election was widely deemed a setback for Netanyahu by Israeli media and politicians, given the Prime Minister’s thinly disguised preference for restoring the Republicans to the White House, but the idea that the Israeli leader would somehow suffer payback from Obama as a result may be overblown. Having observed how Netanyahu’s defiance of Obama over the issue of Israeli settlement construction actually boosted the Likud leader’s domestic political standing in 2009-10, the Administration will be aware that any perception that the U.S. might be trying to get Israeli voters to oust Netanyahu in their January election could spark a backlash that would enhance the incumbent’s standing. So even though Netanyahu looks likely to be challenged by centrist rivals who place greater emphasis on peace with the Palestinians and who criticize the incumbent for using a putative Iran threat as cover for tightening Israel’s grip on occupied territories, the Obama Administration can be expected to take a hands-off approach.

(MORE: Netanyahu’s Lieberman gamble)

Indeed, domestic politics gives Netanyahu little to lose by taking a belligerent posture with the Obama Administration over Iran and the Palestinians. And the Israeli leader knows that whatever his relations with the White House, he can call on the support of a solid bipartisan majority on Capitol Hill.

The hardening of Netanyahu’s own position — as epitomized by the merger of his party with that of his ultranationalist Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman — combined with the dwindling legitimacy of politically enfeebled Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, doesn’t augur well for any prospect of reaching a negotiated two-state solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Obama may not see much to be gained from devoting energy to the issue. An early indication of his intentions will likely come over the next three weeks, as Abbas plans by the end of this month to bring to the U.N. General Assembly a resolution recognizing Palestine as a nonmember state — a diplomatic upgrade sure to pass in an Assembly where there are no veto powers, but which is vehemently opposed by Israel and the U.S. The optimal outcome for Washington would be to persuade Abbas to stand down through a combination of threats direct (Congress withholding aid) and indirect (prompting Netanyahu to commit to an even harder line in his re-election campaign) as well as promises (of renewed engagement at a later point). Whatever the outcome, though, it’s unlikely to portend a new attempt at reviving the moribund peace process on the basis of the current political array on both sides of the conflict.

Syria too is unlikely to see any dramatic policy shift, with the U.S. eschewing any direct military role and still reluctant to provide heavier weaponry to the rebels. Instead, the U.S. and its allies are likely to continue to press for the until now elusive goal of creating a single, moderate opposition leadership as a precondition for greater Western assistance. In other words, expect business as usual — which is the most likely course of action, at least well into next year, for an Administration forced to play a limited hand of strategic cards to manage a series of crises abroad while the more compelling game is played on the domestic political table in Washington.

MORE: Away from the U.S. elections, a new world order takes shape

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