In his two days in the Middle East, President Barack Obama pulled off two feats: a masterly speech to the Muslim world and a diplomatic coup. His talks with Abdullah, king of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh on June 3 and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak on June 4 enabled him to radically reshape American Middle East policies: America's regional center of gravity was abruptly shifted from the traditionally close US-Israel bond to a new partnership between Washington, Riyadh and Cairo.
The warm, affectionate welcome rarely granted a US president by the Saudi king and Egypt president was showered on Obama, attesting to a certain rapport already unfolding. Their words, both in private conversations and brief public statements, touched on general issues and avoided specifics on the intractable subjects of the Middle East. Clearly the US, Saudi and Egyptian rulers are still uncertain about if and how their alliance will work and feeling their way toward its development after the two Arab rulers gave it the nod.
In his speech later at Cairo University, Obama offered a key to his intentions when he said:
“America will align its policies with those who seek peace – whether Israelis, Palestinians or Arabs.”
He was thus leaving himself the freedom henceforth to pick and choose his future partners according to the criteria he set. Non-seekers of peace, according to his lights, would not be considered worthy of American cooperation.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Middle East and Washington sources comment that the United States' relations with the moderate Arab nations, such as the Saudi Arabia and Egypt, long had the appearance of an alliance in the eyes of the world and Muslim opinion. Washington was always closer to Riyadh than to Cairo. The Saudi and Egyptian rulers have taken of late to conferring frequently. But in reality, the three have never acted in concert except ad hoc in special circumstances.
The train won't go through Jerusalem anymore
The three-way coalition which Obama sought to forge this week is the first in its members' history. It was their first strategic bond with clear objectives: to range a moderate Arab-Islamic front against Islamic radicalism, namely al Qaeda, Taliban and their fellow extremist groups, apply the brakes to Iran's drive for a nuclear weapon and bring about a solution of the Palestinian problem.
Al Qaeda's leader Osama bin Laden was quick to respond to the new alignment: He warned Muslims over Islamic websites Thursday that “alliances with Christians and Jews would turn them into apostates.”
For all three allies, it is a transformation of the first order, but most of all for Israel, from whom President Obama proposes to gradually detach US Middle East policy after half a century of close cooperation.
This means that the US president and his advisers will start cutting down on their military and intelligence discourse with Israel. Instead of conferring with Jerusalem on America's military and undercover moves in the Middle East and Muslim world, Washington will build up an active working partnership with Cairo and Riyadh, only turning to Israel when unavoidable.
US administration leaders have opted for this policy reorientation because they want to go into negotiations with Iran unencumbered by Israeli baggage. Close US ties with the Jewish state are seen as an impediment too for Obama's prospective diplomatic engagements with Arab and Muslim governments such as Syria, which he aspires to harness to his new Arab line-up.
Octogenarian Abdullah and Mubarak see advantages
The 86-year old Saudi King believes that hitching onto Obama's star will give him his big chance to bring benefits to the kingdom and advance his aspirations in the twilight years of his reign. At one stroke, he can recover America's nuclear and military shield whose solid foundation in US-Saudi friendship was eroded by al Qaeda's 9/11 atrocity against the United States. Since the Obama presidency is less than a year old, Abdullah hopes to secure the US protective screen for eight years, or at least four.
President Mubarak at 82 is also in the last phase of his long rule. He wants to remain firm enough in the saddle to guarantee his family's continued presence at the helm of government as well as insuring his country's safe future.
Obama's choice of Cairo for addressing the world's Muslims and Mubarak's partnership in the US-led alliance propels Egypt onto center stage in the Middle East, back to its rightful role which he perceives to be the leading regional power.
Shortly before the US president arrived in Egypt, Mubarak carefully timed separate meetings of the nation's political, military and intelligence heads to accept his son, Gemal (Jimmy) Mubarak, 44, as next president. They had only one condition, that a vice president be chosen from among Egypt's ranking generals. Otherwise, the heads of Egyptian intelligence – and even the Shura council of the banned Muslim Brotherhood – endorsed the decision.
Gemal Mubarak has therefore been approved by national consensus as his father's successor. The US president's visit to Cairo was taken as a stamp of approval for the appointment.
A cold wind blows through Jerusalem
Israel was the first country in the region to feel the chill blowing from Obama's reshuffle of America's allies.
His declaration to a million and a half Muslims that America cannot accept the legitimacy of Israel's settlement put Jerusalem in the hot seat by using the settlement issue to test Israel's credibility as a seeker of peace and therefore worthy of being aligned with America's policies.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's Washington sources say that even if that controversy is resolved, the US administration will present Israel with more tests on issues on which Obama refuses to be flexible or meet Israel halfway.
Israel therefore finds itself on a crossroads, with a hard choice between two paths.
One is to line up with Cairo and Riyadh. This relationship had been working quietly three years before Obama entered the White House, notably in the 2006 Israel-Hizballah war. From the inside, Jerusalem can try and tilt the partners in its favor on matters on which the Obama administration adopts courses inimical to Israel's interests.
The other path calls for strong nerves: And independent stance free of outside constraints imposed by Washington, Cairo or Riyadh and much reduced reliance on the United States.
Either path leads inevitably to confrontation with the Obama administration.
Binyamin Netanyahu, in his second term as Israeli prime minister, no doubt recalls previous rough patches in Israel's relations with more than one US president, notably the incumbent's Democratic predecessor, Jimmy Carter in the 1970s, another president with strong opinions.