In the brilliant speech he delivered on March 21 during his trip to Israel and Palestine, US President Obama finally seemed willing to engage actively with the Middle East peace process. More than “a hobby” (as Thomas Friedman from the New York Times once egregiously defined it), the Palestinian question could now become a defining topic of Obama’s second term. This pattern isn’t unusual for US presidents: the first term is devoted to the fight for re-election, the second term secures a place in history. Because of the trickiness of the Palestinian question, Obama has thus far dedicated as little attention as possible to it. Now it’s time to act and hope.
Obama’s speech included several important elements: He stated that no negotiations would be possible if the terror strategy of Palestinian terrorist groups continued. And he hinted that he considers the presence of the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) in the West Bank “an occupation.” As Obama said, “it’s not right to prevent Palestinians from farming […] or displace Palestinian families from their homes. Neither occupation nor expulsion is the answer.”
Oil prices and peace talks
The speech also included an interesting and quite personal passage: “Before I came here,” Obama said, “I met with a group of young Palestinians from the age of 15 to 22. And talking to them, they weren’t that different from my daughters. They weren’t that different from your daughters or sons. I honestly believe that if any Israeli parent sat down with those kids, they’d say, I want these kids to succeed.”
This personal rhetoric is reminiscent of the rhetoric in a famous speech by Ronald Reagan, his “Address to the Nation and Other Countries on United States-Soviet Relations” delivered on January 16, 1984. As the Republican president argued: “Suppose with me for a moment that an Ivan and an Anya could find themselves, oh, say, in a waiting room, or sharing a shelter from the rain or a storm with a Jim and Sally, […].Before they parted company, they would probably have touched on ambitions and hobbies and what they wanted for their children.”
Of course this is just rhetoric, but there might be some substantive commonalities between Obama and Reagan in relation to the peace process.
Over the last forty years, many notable advancements in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process have been reached during periods of low or stagnating oil prices. The Camp David accords of 1978 (brokered by Jimmy Carter) came after the 1973 oil crisis and after four years of oil price stagnation. The Oslo Accords of 1993 also fell into a period of stagnating oil prices (prices spiked only for a brief period during Operation “Desert Storm”). Conversely, the negotiations of Camp David in 2000 failed while oil prices were booming.
This is not to suggest that there is a perfect causality between oil prices and the peace process (luckily I am not an economist!), but there might be a correlation. Obama has to face a scenario in which regional oil-fueled powers try to influence the Israeli-Palestinian balance. For example, Iran is flexing its muscle through its connection to the Syrian criminal leadership and to Hezbollah in Southern Lebanon. Russia, dependent on fossil fuel, backs the Iranians. Moscow has had a foothold in the region since the first Iranian Crisis in 1945/46 and, understandably, does not want to see its influence diminish.
Yet sliding oil prices may help to contain the ambitions of regional powers and the Russians. The forecast isn’t as gloomy as it might appear: New oil reserves are being tapped in the US and have increased the oil production in less troublesome regions of the world. Additionally, the Americans are working to partially substitute shale gas for oil. These developments have contained oil prices and have led to forecasts that predict decreasing prices over the coming years.
A new American leadership
Obama’s America now enjoys low oil prices because of generous permits for new domestic drilling projects. The strategy is similar to one pursued by Reagan in 1981, which eventually led to a colossal price collapse in May 1986. Reagan’s collapse was interpreted by some (most notably Peter Schweizer) as an anti-Soviet Strategy, whereas the real thing was reducing energy prices at home. If low prices “hastened” the downfall of the USSR, this was an accepted and positive side effect. Similarly, Obama’s lax regulation in the energy sector is bringing energy prices down, and may have as its by-product good conditions for peace talks.
In 1986, the main issue in the Middle East was the invasion of Afghanistan by the Red Army. As the Soviets became more and more cash-strapped, they called their soldiers home – and discouraged soldiers returning to the “Stan” republics in Central Asia contributed further to Soviet fragmentation. Towards the West, the Berlin Wall fell. But the unification of the city wasn’t really decided in Berlin – it was decided in Moscow during a period of Soviet weakness.
Similarly, the Israeli-Palestine issue will not be solved in Jerusalem. A solution requires the weakening of the forces that contribute to hatred and violence. Low oil prices constitute a favorable condition (although they aren’t the only necessary condition). It’s fashionable to talk about America’s disengagement in the region. But increasing US energy independence might thus create an opportunity for Washington to assume a new leadership role in the Middle East.