Obama’s Mideast gamble

There’s plenty of free advice for the Obama administration over its Middle East policies at the annual Herzliya conference in Israel, where policymakers and other security experts are meeting to discuss the strategic challenges of the day.

In the past dominated by Iran and its nuclear program, this year’s conference has been marked by angst about the turmoil in Egypt. The Israelis are particularly worried about the authoritarian government of President Hosni Mubarak being replaced after elections by a government where the fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood could have a role.

What has surprised Israel is the speed with which the administration dumped its ally of 30 years, who had been the bedrock for the U.S. among the moderate Arab states in the region. Although President Obama has not publicly called on Mubarak to leave office, the diplomatic code of the repeated call for an orderly transition to begin “now” cannot be mistaken. One source told me that Obama is taking a gamble by saying he supports the protesters. It’s fine as long as a democratic — and stable — outcome is assured. But if not — oops.

And what are other Arab allies in the region supposed to think, say, in Jordan and Saudi Arabia? Are they in danger of being unceremoniously dropped as soon as their people take to the streets?

An Iranian opposition activist at the Herzliya conference told me that Obama’s outspoken position regarding Egypt will rankle with the Iranian protesters who took to the streets after the contested Iranian elections in 2009, only to find that open support from the United States was not immediately forthcoming.

Obama has never been popular in Israel, and the administration’s handling of the peace process has been criticized here. I was assured last night by a former senior official that nothing will happen for another year — with next September being the deadline set by Obama for a political settlement.

But I think the Israelis might protest too much. They know and trust Gen. Omar Suleiman, the vice president and former spy chief who is managing the transition in Egypt. According to WikiLeaks, he was even their preferred choice to succeed Mubarak as president.