Obama is in the White House, Netanyahu is expected to win the coming Israeli elections, and Khatami, I know this might sound like a long shot, could return to the international and regional scene as the next Iranian President. From Bush, Olmert and Ahmadinejad to Obama, Netanyahu and Khatami, what can change in the Middle East?
Not much, I believe. Israel will remain the closest ally to the U.S., and Iran will always be the 'rougue' state. However, the rigidity of these constructed identities might soften just a bit. The central point here is the presence of Obama as the more acceptable face and representative of American interests in the region.
The expectations go on the direction of creating a more balanced and 'idealist' framework for the interactions between the U.S. and regional powers, where the long-standing issues and conflicts can be solved or at least negotiated in better spirit from all sides. In this framework, hardliners like Netanyahu will have a hard time advancing their state's interests, while states like Iran can benefit from being represented by a reformer like Khatami.
Again, this is not a reconfiguration of the structure of roles in the Middle East, it's just an opportunity to slowly and lightly shift the burden of proof from the shoulders of Iran, Muslims, Arabs, Palestinians and place some of it on the Israeli side. In a Bush-like era, someone like Netanyahu would have not needed to explain himself. Now, it's not that easy. On the other hand, Iran will be headed and represented by the guy who invented the concept of dialogue of civilizations...
In the Obama era, Khatami should be more comfortable if we relax the rigid structures of interests in the regional system and look beneath the constructed roles. Chances are Obama and Khatami can become good friends while Obama and Netanyahu will barely find anything to talk about. But this is not a gathering at Starbucks, it's a regional system based on distribution of interests and historically constructed identities.
But let's escape for the moment the lifeless international system and wander the streets of Europe and the West. In there, I believe the burden of proof will be even heavier on Israel's shoulders. Obama was just a fresh breeze of air coming from across the Atlantic to mix with the already established, idealist, post-modern strong flavor among Europeans, where the provocative discourse of hyper realism of Netanyahu is sure to cause more criticism and isolation for Israel.
Of course this is all hypothetical. The only thing that is sure is that Obama is here. Hopefully, Israelis will make a mistake and elect Netanyahu and the Iranians might actually do themselves and all those on our side a favor... Who knows?!
*Published in THE KUWAIT TIMES on Feb. 5. Meshary Alruwaih is a staff columnist