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Israel getting mixed signals from Obama administration amid Middle East chaos

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Opponents of Egypt's Islamist President Mohammed Morsi wave national flags as they demonstrate in Tahrir Square in Cairo, Egypt, Friday, June 28, 2013. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil)AP2013

With violence and chaos surrounding Israel, policy experts within the Jewish state say the Obama administration is sending mixed — and highly confusing — signals as to where it stands.

The U.S. policies regarding Egypt, Syria, Turkey and even Qatar, where talks are slated with the Taliban, has left some observers in Israel, America’s staunchest ally in the region, perplexed as to the true direction of U.S. foreign policy in the region. In Egypt, the Obama administration was quick to support protesters in 2011, when they rose up against President Hosni Mubarak. But with fresh demonstrations aimed at President Morsi’s regime, there is no sign of the U.S. calling for the removal of the Muslim Brotherhood government despite its violent crackdown and widespread persecution of Egypt’s Christian community. 

“In Egypt, the fanatics of the Muslim Brotherhood are attempting to control every aspect of Egyptian society,” said Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Israel’s Bar Ilan University. “You would think the Obama administration would sympathize with liberals and with democrats, with people who oppose the Muslim Brotherhood, but they are paralyzed there, too. They have shown no sign of dealing with the fact that we have replaced one dictatorship with another dictatorship.”

To the north, where more than 100,000 Syrians have died in a bloody, two-year civil war, the U.S. is planning to arm rebels, who include anti-Israel jihadists. The plan goes against previous stated policies, and threatens to put U.S. arms in the hands of Israel’s enemies, said Steinberg.

“Their strategy can be summed up as simply as, ‘Let’s talk to everybody.’ There is no understanding that they are meeting with the wrong people, and sending the wrong signals.”

- Gerald Steinberg, professor of political science at Israel’s Bar Ilan University

“Clearly the [Obama] administration has been paralyzed on Syria,” Steinberg said. “It has no policy, no strategy. It has taken them almost two years to understand who the players are and the stakes involved. They never saw the big divide between Shias and Sunnis.”

Also troubling for some in Israel is the fact that the Obama administration has been largely silent on a brutal crackdown in Turkey, by the increasingly Islamist government.The personal relationship between President Obama and Turkish Prime Minister Tayyip Erdogan is reportedly a close one, yet there has been little hint of the U.S. using its strong influence over Turkey to dissuade Erdogan from his heavy-handed response to Turks exercising their democratic right under the constitution to protest earlier this month.

Especially alarming to Steinberg was word last week that a deputy of an Egyptian cleric banned from the U.S. because of ties to terror had met with White House officials. The Washington-based Investigative Project on Terrorism (IPT), revealed the June 13 pow-wow between Sheikh Abdulla Bin Bayyah and senior U.S. officials. Bin Bayyah is the deputy of the dangerous Egyptian cleric Youssef Qaradawi, the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood who has repeatedly called for the killing of Americans and Jews.

Finally, the administration last week allowed the opening of a new Taliban office on the soil of supposed close U.S. ally Qatar, and said it intended to hold direct talks with the extreme Islamist group. The talks were announced just a day before four U.S. troops were killed and six seriously wounded in a rocket attack by the Taliban on Baghram airbase in Afghanistan.

Steinberg suggests that the U.S. simply doesn’t understand the region and that its muddled logic is unlikely to benefit anyone.

“The basic approach is that everything can be negotiated,” said Steinberg. “Their strategy can be summed up as simply as, ‘Let’s talk to everybody.’ There is no understanding that they are meeting with the wrong people, and sending the wrong signals.”

Paul Alster is an Israel-based journalist who blogs at www.paulalster.com and can be followed on twitter @ paul_alster