Obama’s Middle East Plan

Posted: May 10th, 2009 | Author: | Filed under: In the News, the US and us | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »

The weekend papers dealt mainly with the new policy for the Middle East that US president Barak Obama is supposed to present in the following weeks, maybe even before his meeting with PM Benjamin Netanyahu.

Most pundits and reporters agree on this: the administration is determined to prevent Israel from attacking Iran (it is unclear whether Israel can actually do that on its own, and without flying over American occupied Iraq. On the other hand, it’s hard to imagine the US shooting down Israeli jets). Obama will offer the Iranians some kind of deal – maybe one which will include financial benefits, in exchange for freezing its nuclear program and giving the UN inspectors unlimited access to all facilities.

What happens if Iran turns down the offer, and Mahmud Ahmadinejad wins the elections next month? Here in Israel there are those – like Yedioth’s Ron Ben Yishay – who thinks Obama might allow Iran to be a “threshold state”, i.e. a country which has the material and the technology to create a bomb, but does not yet posses an actual bomb. This is not far from accepting the Iranian bomb.

There is another option. Amir Oren writes in Haaretz that Obama is trying a 1991-like move. According to Oren, the president sees the Bush-lead coalition against Iraq in the first Gulf War as one of the finest achievements of US diplomacy, and is currently trying to do the same – build an international diplomatic effort, which could eventually lead even to a military operation, and at the same time, prevent Israel from acting on its own.

Dennis Ross – who serves as a special advisor to the president on the Persian Gulf and Southwest Asia – has the same idea (or was it Ross’s idea to begin with?). In “Statecraft”, Ross’s 2007 book - which was just published in Hebrew – he compares the successful 1991 answer to the Iraqi problem with the “totally different” approach George W. Bush’s administration took after 9/11. The difference between the success and failure was the diplomatic effort that preceded the war, concludes Ross. If the US engages in the right diplomacy, it can contain the Iranian problem as well – if not solve it completely.

But one might ask oneself whether the US had a chance to get the world on its side against in 2002 – diplomatic effort or not – given the fact that there was no real reason to attack Iraq, as opposed to 1990, when Iraq conquered a UN member. In other words, the basic question is not whether you engage in diplomacy or not, but whether other countries think they have a good reason to join your side. And the world’s view of Iran is mixed, at best.

So eventually, the administration will be left with the same dilemma: should it attack Iran, allow Israel to attack, or accept the idea of a fully nuclear Iran, and prepare for the day after (which is what I believe will eventually happen).

Another thing the 1991 administration did was to link the Iraqi problem to the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Hence, the momentum from the first Gulf War led to the Madrid conference, which opened the door for Oslo. In the same spirit, we are hearing more and more of the link between Iran and the West Bank.

It is becoming clear that the Obama administration will try to keep the moderate Arab states – Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia – on its side by reigniting the peace process. The first step will be an effort to reestablish a Palestinian national unity government, and to put some pressure on Israel, probably regarding the settlements and the roadblocks. But don’t expect a showdown between the WH and Jerusalem. It won’t serve any side’s interests, and since the Palestinians are divided as well, there is little hope of reaching an agreement soon – so what’s the point in creating a crisis?

It will be interesting to see both Israel and the Palestinians’ reactions to the new approach taken by the Administration. Will the Palestinians be able to present a united front for future negotiations? And what direction will Netanyahu take? Will he be able to keep his coalition while freezing the settlements, or will he just try to buy some time, hoping that all this diplomatic frenzy will just fade away?

Obama and Netanyahu’s meeting is coming, and in a month the elections in Iran will be held. The talks between the PLO and Hamas have also resumed. In the next few weeks we will probably get a good idea as to where things are going.

2 Comments on “Obama’s Middle East Plan”

  1. 1 rfjk said at 7:29 am on May 16th, 2009:

    Any fathoming of Obama’s Middle East peace initiative cannot be realized in whole until after the Iranian elections in June.

    Specifics such as talking with enemies, settlements, two state solution, etc have long been aired by the new regime, but the decisive means to accomplish these goals have been held close to this administrations chest.

    Obama himself cannot know exactly his course until he knows who among America’s enemies are going to be in power in Tehran. That knowledge is already clear in Tel Aviv.

  2. 2 noam said at 7:39 am on May 16th, 2009:

    I tend to agree, though there is a growing understanding in Israel that the election’s outcome won’t affect Iran’s nuclear program.

    as for Netanyahu, it looks as though he might offer Obama his own version on the Iranian-Palestinian link: Israel won’t attack (for now), and there will be no more talks of the two state solution (for now).