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Obama’s Chamberlain phrase

- President’s peace push and its fallout in Israel

Washington, Jan. 22: When Barack Obama spoke on the steps of Capitol Hill yesterday, echoes of his speech immediately reverberated in Jerusalem more than anywhere else. If anyone doubted whether Benjamin Netanyahu will win Israel’s election today, the US President unintentionally ensured that he will retain his job as Prime Minister.

Seven words uttered by Obama in his inaugural address were music to much of the world’s ears. “A decade of war is now ending,” Obama declared, the most important pronouncement in strategic terms in his entire speech.

While the rest of the world may have found these words reassuring, a final closure on George W. Bush’s warmongering years, most Israelis received those words with foreboding. They read those words as a signal that Obama is unwilling to go to war with Iran over its nuclear programme.

Obama did not mention any country by name yesterday, but it was clear that he had Iran in mind when he declared that his administration will “resolve our differences with other nations peacefully — not because we are naive about the dangers we face, but because engagement can more durably lift suspicion and fear”.

Widely seen as a balancing assurance to Israel, among others, that “America will remain the anchor of strong alliances in every corner of the globe,” it was not enough though to comfort the Jewish nation whose voters would have been persuaded by Obama’s speech that Netanyahu’s hard line approach to the Palestinians is the only way to ensure their security.

Obama’s address came a week after leaks here that Obama said of Netanyahu’s actions, especially his expansion of Jewish settlements in occupied territories, in terms that “Israel doesn’t know what its own best interests are.”

The Prime Minister took issue with Obama’s comment — which the White House has so far not denied — by saying “only Israeli citizens will determine who faithfully represents Israel’s vital interests”.

The spat between Obama and Netanyahu may well have turned out to be the maut ka saudagar moment in Israel’s election. Like Narendra Modi who capitalised on Sonia Gandhi’s derisive comment about him during Gujarat’s election five years ago, Netanyahu appears to have used his people’s insecurities and their doubts about Obama to clever electoral advantage today.

Conservatives in this town are apt to complain in the coming weeks that Obama’s sure-footed declaration that “a decade of war is now ending” will be comfort to Syria’s Bashar al Assad whose back was getting closer to the wall and for Pakistan which is keeping its cards close to its chest as the US deadline for withdrawing from Afghanistan nears.

In that context, it was unfortunate for Obama that his speechwriter put in the words “peace in our time” into his latest inaugural address while outlining US foreign policy in the four years ahead.

“Peace in our time” is a phrase that acquired historic notoriety when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain used it on September 30, 1938, to rationalise the ill-starred Munich Agreement with Adolf Hitler.

The very next day the Nazis occupied Sudetenland, triggering a succession of events that led within a year to World War II.

Foreign policy, of course, is subject to the unexpected: an event even remotely similar to September 11 can change all this vision.

Most of the domestic elements in Obama’s speech represented sermons to those already converted to his cause. He said many things that his supporters wished to hear.

One such segment created history. “Our journey is not complete until our gay brothers and sisters are treated like anyone else under the law for if we are truly created equal, then surely the love we commit to one another must be equal as well,” Obama said to the delight of gays and lesbians who threw their full weight behind the President during his re-election campaign.

This is the first time that any President has acknowledged the existence of a gay community in America in a speech at his inauguration.

Liberals are hailing his speech as a manifesto for their cause. Conservatives will continue to lament that Obama is being divisive and bury any hopes for their country under his leadership. Exigencies of politics in Washington may, however, demand that the country’s course in the next two years may be somewhere in the middle.

The two-year frame is important because everything may change if both Houses of the US Congress fall to Democrats in the mid-term election in 2014.