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Proving US indispensability

The current fighting in Gaza has for some time been "a disaster waiting to happen". When it finally did happen this came at an inopportune time, toward the end of the US presidential transition, as the Bush administration was fading and President-elect Barack Obama adamantly (and correctly) refused to make his opinion known, let alone be drawn into the politics of the crisis.

This turn of events is likely to have two main consequences. First, it has already demonstrated the indispensability of the United States as the ultimate political broker in the Middle East. Two weeks of fighting have provided ample building blocks for a political-diplomatic solution to the immediate crisis (though not to the larger, underlying crisis). But with the US absent from the scene, international (France) and regional (Egypt, Turkey) actors have proven inadequate for the task. Critics of Washington's dominant role in the Arab-Israel peace process will have to moderate if not mute their criticism.

Second, the Obama administration will have to move up its timetable with regard to its involvement in a revival of the Arab-Israel peace process, particularly its Palestinian parts. This would certainly be the case should the crisis not be resolved prior to January 20. But even if it is, the lingering issues, the political and emotional impact and the renewed sense of urgency would in all likelihood prod the new administration to assign a higher priority to the Arab-Israel issue in its foreign policy agenda.

Barack Obama is seen in the Middle East as an antithesis to George W. Bush, but also as much more. He is America's first black president, with a strong third world background. During his campaign and after his election, he assigned priority to diplomacy over waging war. He advocated talking to Iran and Syria (but said also that a nuclear Iran was unacceptable). Middle Easterners do not just wait for Obama to enter the White House. They offer him abundant advice and guidance on how to mend Washington's relationship with the Muslim world and how to solve the Middle East's endemic problems.

With all the speculation on what the new president will do in the Middle East, there are precious few clues for educated guessing and analysis to go by. The president-elect has been very careful in his post-election statements, and wisely so. On the weekend of January 10-11, under pressure of the crisis in Gaza, he was slightly more specific. He reiterated his campaign position that he would "engage" Iran and promised that his administration would deal with the Israeli-Palestinian crisis immediately upon assuming office. He also spoke about the concessions that both sides will have to make in order for a settlement to be reached.

What could an Obama policy look like on January 21? It should be conducted on two levels: in the short term, Washington should deal with the crisis in Gaza or with its immediate aftermath and byproducts. But a stable solution in Gaza is not likely to be reached before the fundamental issues of the region and of Arab-Israel relations are addressed, if not resolved.

In approaching these issues, the Obama administration may well be advised to abandon two widely held assumptions. The first is that in order to deal effectively with such regional issues as Iraq and Iran, the US should be actively engaged in resolving the Arab-Israel problem. The operative conclusion happens to be right, but the logic of the underlying argumentation should be reversed. You must not deal with the Arab-Israel issue in order to build a fruitful dialogue with Iran, but you must deal effectively with Iran if you want to become an effective sponsor of a renewed Arab-Israel peace process.

Iran is currently the chief engine, pulling and pushing the radical forces in the Arab world that pose the most significant obstacles to the renewal and success of the peace process. This is no longer the pure product of the rage and zeal that underlay the original Islamic revolution of 1979 but, to a large extent, the calculated policy of a regime seeking regional hegemony and international influence. Barack Obama set himself a tall order: to engage Iran and persuade it to refrain from acquiring a nuclear arsenal as part of an American-Iranian "grand bargain". This is not beyond reach if the negotiation with Iran is constructed and conducted properly. But it is a daunting task and it must be accomplished within a brief timetable, for two reasons: the ticking of Iran's nuclear clock and the repercussions of the dialogue for the anticipated Arab-Israel peace process.

Another conventional wisdom concerning that process that needs to be abandoned holds that a sharp choice should be made between a "Syria first" and a "Palestine first" policy. Underlying this conclusion is the assumption that no Israeli government can deal simultaneously with final status agreements with both Syria and the Palestinians. This may very well still be true (particularly if the February elections in Israel produce a right-wing government), but a final status agreement with the Palestinians is not a relevant option now. Changes will have to occur in Palestinian politics before an effective Palestinian Authority in control of its whole territory can seriously and credibly negotiate such a settlement. Thus, if it turns out that Syria is a real candidate for a final status deal with Israel, an interim agreement could be the goal of an Israeli-Palestinian negotiation that actually enjoys considerable support in post-Gaza war Israel.

As suggested above, the prospect of a serious Syrian-Israeli negotiation will have to be tested with a new US president and a new Israeli prime minister. The indirect Syrian-Israeli negotiation conducted by the outgoing Israeli prime minister and barely tolerated by President Bush did not quite examine the fundamental issue: Is Syria willing--in return for a Golan agreement, a new relationship with Washington and recognition of its influence in (but not control of) Lebanon--to go through a Sadat-like realignment of policies and opt out of the Iranian-led radical camp in the Middle East?

In the meantime, in the absence from the scene of the US, the fighting in Gaza and rocket attacks on Israel continue.- Published 15/1/2009 © bitterlemons-international.org