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With Israel, Obama Is Walking the High Wire With His Eyes Closed

The press called last week's Middle East visit a success, but everything could come crashing down in an instant.

| Tue Apr. 2, 2013 6:00 AM EDT

This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

Barack Obama came to Israel and Palestine, saw what he wanted to see, and conquered the mainstream media with his eloquent words. US and Israeli journalists called it a dream trip, the stuff that heroic myths are made of: a charismatic world leader taking charge of the Mideast peace process. But if the president doesn't wake up and look at the hard realities he chose to ignore, his dream of being the great peacemaker will surely crumble, as it has before.

Like most myths, this one has elements of truth. Obama did say some important things. In a speech to young Israelis, he insisted that their nation's occupation of the West Bank is not merely bad for their country, it is downright immoral, "not fair... not just ... not right."

I've been decrying the immorality of the occupation for four decades, yet I must admit I never dreamed I would hear an American president, standing in Jerusalem, do the same.

Despite those words, however, Obama is no idealist. He's a strategist. His Jerusalem speech was clearly meant to widen the gap between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the substantial center-left portion of Israeli Jews, who are open to a deal with the Palestinians and showed unexpected strength in recent elections. The growing political tensions in Israel and a weakened prime minister give the American president a potential opening to maneuver, manipulate, and perhaps even control the outcome of events.

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How to do so, though? Obama himself probably has no clear idea. Whatever Washington's Middle Eastern script, when it comes to Israel and the Palestinians, it will require an extraordinary balancing act.

The president will have to satisfy (or mollify) both the center-left and the right in Israel, strike an equally perfect balance between divergent Israeli and Palestinian demands, march with Netanyahu up to the edge of war with Iran yet keep Israel from plunging over that particular cliff, calibrate the ratcheting up of punishing sanctions and other acts in relation to Iran so finely that the Iranians will, in the end, yield to US demands without triggering a war, and prevent the Syrian civil war from spilling into Israel, which means controlling Lebanese politics, too. Don't forget that he will have do it all while maintaining his liberal base at home and fending off the inevitable assault from the right.

Oh, yes. Then there are all the as-yet-unforeseeable variables that will also have to be managed. To call it a tall order is an understatement.

The Fantasy of Perfect Control

In American political culture, we expect no less from any president. After all, he is "the most powerful man in the world"—so he should be able to walk such a high wire adroitly, without fretting too much about the consequences, should he fall.

Whatever else he may be doing, whenever an American president travels abroad, his overriding goal is to act out on the world stage a singular and deeply felt, if not always articulated, fantasy so many Americans love: that their leader and the nation he embodies have, like Superman, unlimited powers to control people and events around the globe.

In this scenario, the president of the United States is a man above every fray, who understands the true needs of both sides in any conflict, as befits his uniquely exceptional nation. That's why he can go anywhere—even Jerusalem or Ramallah—and tell the locals what is true and right and how they should behave.

This mythic president can deftly maneuver his way across the most challenging of situations, sooner or later settling any dispute with a god-like sense of justice—and without ever losing his perfect balance.

Like his country, he can be all things to all people. He never has to make painful sacrifices or suffer losses, as he proves that the American way will eventually triumph over all.

To make this fantasy seem convincingly real, the president—and the faithful mainstream media who report it all—must turn every place he visits into a fantasyland. They must exclude realities that might quickly puncture the idealized image. But reality has a nasty habit of showing up, even when it's least wanted.

Israeli Realities Ignored

In fact, Israel is one place where the fantasy of US control comes reasonably close to reality. The president has substantially more power over the Israelis than his critics on the left give him credit for. Netanyahu's embarrassing apology to Turkey (with no reciprocity from Turkey guaranteed), his release of tax funds to the Palestinian Authority just days after Obama's visit, and the truce that quickly ended Israel-Gaza fighting in November 2012, with a commitment to ease the blockade on Gaza, are only the latest of many examples of the way an American president can successfully pressure Israeli leaders.

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