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U.S. Middle East Policy - Going Where?


This year there was no Crystal Ball assessment. It seemed unwise to pretend to know what the Obama administration will do with any accuracy, though that didn't prevent a lot of people from doing it.

The appointment of George Mitchell has been interpreted by all the tea leaf readers as a sign that the US will be "actively involved" and that it will be evenhanded. A lot of emphasis is placed on Mitchell's Lebanese ancestry and the nature of his recommendations in the 2001 Mitchell Report, so Mitchell is seen as "anti-Israel" or at least not "pro-Israel." It might mean that, but then again, it might not. Simliiarly, President Obama's (Better get used to that, "President Obama") statement that he is going to pursue Middle East peace aggressively is taken at face value by many.

Permit me to inject a note of skepticism. George Mitchell's previous role in the Middle East was not stellar, and did not symbolize an aggressive policy. We may argue about whether the Mitchell Report was too pro-Israel or too pro-Palestinian, but there is no argument about the result of that report, which was absolutely nothing, nada and zilch. Far from symbolizing aggressive policy, Mitchell seems to personify inertness rather than initiative and signal impotence rather than importance. Mitchell's brief is not to propose a new peace process, but to listen to the sides and to focus on stopping arms smuggling and stabilizing the situation in Gaza.

There is something peculiar about all this. If Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden really are clueless about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after all this time, then sending George Mitchell to listen to the sides is not going to help them get up to speed. If they haven't formed opinions then they are really slow learners. If you are going to pursue a policy aggressively, then you just do it. You don't announce you are going to do it and then send someone to listen and then set up a committee to study the problem.

The idea that the ethnic origin of a particular envoy is going to determine policy is usually naive at best. It is true that when Stalin wanted to sign a pact with Hitler, he replaced Jewish foreign minister Litvinoff with Molotov, but that was an exceptional and extreme case. If the Obama administration is contemplating bitter medicine for Israel, they would probably be wise enough to send Dennis Ross or someone else who is identified with Israeli interests to administer that medicine.

In a well-ordered administration, tails do not wag dogs. Policy is made by governments and implemented with the help of ambassadors and emissaries. Emissaries do not make policy. Any U.S. policy initiative, if it is going to come, will have to come out of the White House or the State Department, not delivered through a special emissary of any kind. A dramatic policy change must be fully and clearly enunciated and it must have behind it the auctoritas* and gravitas of a major leader - the President or the Secretary of State. There is not much sense in enunciating such policy right now, because the Israeli government will shortly be changed, and because nobody knows what really is the Palestinian government. So reports of an Obama Middle East initiative are premature. I am not saying this won't happen, but there is no sign at all that it did happen or that it is about to happen, and there is also no scenario for what such a peace initiative could contain.

It is not clear how the Obama administration could aggressively pursue a peace settlement unless they are ready to force some very unpleasant and unlikely changes. For example, Palestinians do not agree to recognize any Israeli national rights in East Jerusalem. It is hard to imagine an Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu giving up a square millimeter of East Jerusalem, and preposterous to imagine that it would give up all of East Jerusalem. Palestinians insist on Right of Return for refugees. Not just in theory, but as a matter of practical implementation. It is had to imagine any Israeli government that would ever agree to that. Moreover, as long as Hamas is in power in the Gaza strip, they are sure to veto any peace agreement no matter what contents it might have. That is their declared ideological and religious policy, and it is backed by the pragmatic considerations of their Iranian sponsors, who are anxious to torpedo any U.S. sponsored peace process.

The only party to the conflct that the Obama administration can really control or pressure in any way is Israel. Hamas will not listen to them, and Mahmoud Abbas probably could not deliver the PLO for a real compromise agreement. An Obama administration initiative could not bring peace. It could however, get Israel to freeze settlement growth at least in sensitive areas and force Israel to remove the infamous illegal outposts. Both of these were obsessions of George Mitchell in 2001. These concessions would not be a security risk for Israel and they would allow the US to show Arabs that it had accomplished something for the Palestinian cause. They would also bolster the fortunes and legitimacy of the West Bank Palestinian Authority, which is an American protege, as opposed to the Iranian sponsored Hamas. It is not realistic to expect any more than that, and it might be equally unrealistic to expect less than that from an administration wishing to advance its prestige in the Middle East. The downside of that course is that any right wing Israeli government that agreed to those moves would probably be turned out by its constituents in favor of an even more right wing government.

An Obama administration initiative might also take the form of an overture to Syria, but that doesn't seem likely in the near future. It is not likely either, that a Netanyahu administration will be forthcoming with concessions to Syria. Therefore, the future of "peace initiatives" does not look bright. However, those who still believe Barack Obama can really walk on water are hoping he will surprise us.

Ami Isseroff

*Auctoritas is a Latin word meaning auctoritas, and not to be confused with the word "authority" in English. In addition to authority, it conveys the connotations of respect, awe and leadership.

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Original text copyright by the author and MidEastWeb for Coexistence, RA. Posted at MidEastWeb Middle East Web Log at http://www.mideastweb.org/log/archives/00000745.htm where your intelligent and constructive comments are welcome. Distributed by MEW Newslist. Subscribe by e-mail to mew-subscribe@yahoogroups.com. Please forward by email with this notice and link to and cite this article. Other uses by permission.

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Replies: 1 Comment

I hope you are one who hopes Obama might yet surprise us with a successful peace initiative.


Posted by Kiev500 @ 02/12/2009 03:44 AM CST

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