While Turkey and Iran are at the heart of any prospects for forward movement on the Middle East, Israel is the new US president's primary challenge, writes
A slew of senior US officials swept the Middle East recently to prepare the ground for President Barack Obama's new strategy of engagement and dialogue to address the challenging problems of the region. Led by new Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the diplomatic pageantry included George Mitchell, the US special envoy to the Middle East, the State Department's top Middle East expert Jeffrey Feltman, and senior National Security Council official Daniel Shapiro, both of whom were assigned to open up the Syrian track -- a member of the Bush administration's trilateral "axis of evil". Dennis Ross, the administration's special adviser to the Gulf, and Iran, is being kept in the wings for the right moment to enter on stage. They were all preceded by visits of four congressional delegations that focussed on Syria, the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories and Israel. In keeping with the plan to make the Middle East one of its top priorities, the Obama administration is launching an attack on all Middle East problems, albeit from the fringes. It remains to be seen if, in pursuing its agenda of engagement instead of containment, the Obama administration is biting off more than it can chew.
The United States' diplomatic offensive came six weeks after President Obama was sworn in. It has been arranged to coincide with the Reconstruction of Gaza Conference, held at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh where a community of 75 international participants pledged $4.5 billion for the effort. The conference also had a US-EU political agenda: to marginalise any role, and consequently credit, Hamas may earn for the reconstruction of the Israeli-devastated Strip and to bolster the Palestinian Authority (PA) of Mahmoud Abbas as the only legitimate Palestinian administration. However, the reconstruction of Gaza depends on a long-term and stable ceasefire between Hamas and Israel and the opening of crossings controlled by Israel that has put the Gaza Strip under siege since Hamas took over government in June 2007. The PA and Arab governments involved, mainly Egypt, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states, realise that without the active involvement of Hamas's administration no reconstruction will be possible. So, the question of partnership under the umbrella of Palestinian national reconciliation and a power-sharing unity government between Fatah and Hamas for which Egypt is acting as the interlocutor is a precondition. To pave the way for this possibility, Salam Fayyad, prime minister of the caretaker government of the PA, has tendered his resignation. However, Hamas's agenda commits it to resistance against Israeli occupation and expansion as a strategic option. By contrast, the PA of Abbas has gained acceptability and a modicum of respect only by submitting to the terms of the US, Israel, the European Union and the Quartet under the 1993 Oslo Accords. Hamas has taken the rough road of resistance and survived Arab isolation, international pressure and the massive Israeli military invasion and genocide that destroyed Gaza and left thousands of Palestinians killed, wounded or homeless. Hamas and its coalition of 13 resistance movements are unlikely to give up armed resistance as a price for partnership with Fatah or for acceptance by the so-called international community, and are supported by Hizbullah, Syria, Iran and a respectable number of Fatah's cadres.
This brings in Syria, a partner that is keenly interested in ending Israeli occupation of its Golan Heights and restoring the rights of the Palestinians. Syria's role is more central than that of any country in the region. Its cobweb of interests and relations spans a wide range of issues and parties. It is in conflict with Israel over the latter's 42-year-long occupation of the Golan Heights, it has a historical role and undeniable interest in Lebanon, it has strong ties with Iran and the resistance movements of Hizbullah and Hamas, it hosts two million refugees from Iraq and Palestine, it has vital partnership in joint water resources with Turkey, which is also mediating between it and Israel, it has its own domestic political problems with the Muslim Brotherhood and pro- democracy opposition groups, it is being courted by France and Russia and is under US sanctions because of suspected involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Al-Hariri. With this tall order, it was no wonder that US envoy Jeffrey Feltman said after four hours of talks with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Al-Muallim that Syria could play "an important and constructive role" in the region. Syria has been at odds with its "moderate" Arab partners, including Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan. It endured pressures of ostracism, and only recently, after signals proposing dialogue came out of Washington, is being warmly embraced by its Arab opponents. With all new overtures, Syria will still have hard choices to make, including the prospects of a peaceful settlement with a radical right-wing Israeli government, future policies on Palestinian resistance, a Palestinian-Israeli settlement with all its guarantees and future relations with the US and Iran.
With all Middle East complex issues on the table, the administration in Washington seems to realise two things: there is no leading Arab power it can engage to address all issues, and that all political and security tracks point to Tehran, which the US is inviting to a planned international conference on Afghanistan as an opening gesture of engagement. So, it would seem its strategy would be to separate the tracks and tackle each one individually, starting from the periphery and gradually moving towards the core. For Syria, confidence-building and the restoration of relations would mark a good start, now that Syria has redefined its relations with Lebanon on the basis of mutual sovereignty and is willing to cooperate with the international tribunal to try suspects in the assassination of Al-Hariri. For Hamas, the reconstruction of Gaza, a national unity government and a long-term ceasefire with Israel could be prelude to reviving negotiations towards a final settlement. The only obstacle will be the anticipated policies of the hardcore right-wing government that is expected in Israel. For the future of Palestinian and Lebanese resistance, the option could be held in abeyance pending the progress of negotiations. After all, in negotiating peace in Northern Ireland, George Mitchell did not insist that the Irish Republican Army lay down its weapons as a precondition for uncertain negotiations.
No matter how much the new US strategy will manage to segment the issues, it would seem that all tracks lead to Tehran. As a rising regional power, Iran has vital interest and varying degrees of involvement in Iraq, Afghanistan, the Palestinian- Israeli conflict, Lebanon, heavy US military presence in the Gulf and Israel's appetite for expansion and domination of the region. The US hopes that by disconnecting Syria from Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas and the Palestinian problem through a settlement of the Golan Heights issue, the supporting lifeline to Palestinian and Lebanese resistance will dry up and Iranian influence will diminish. Iran would then be isolated and left at the mercy of US and Israel, loyally followed by the European Union. This is easier said than done since it means that Syria could not make such choices without suffering serious destabilising domestic and regional repercussions.
This calls for the involvement of Turkey as a regional power to counterbalance Iran. Turkey is a weighty Sunni Muslim country, a NATO member with aspirations to join the European Union and is uniquely positioned to be a moderating factor and an interlocutor between the Arab Middle East and Israel. And Turkey is not averse to playing this role that, it hopes, will strengthen its hand with the EU as a potential European member enjoying the strongest ties with the Muslim world. It has already renewed its interest in resuming mediation between Syria and Israel -- an effort that was torpedoed by the Israeli invasion of Gaza. That is why President Barack Obama is scheduling a visit to Turkey in April after eight years of estrangement from the US under the Bush administration.
For the Obama administration, the most serious challenge is not Syria, Hamas or Hizbullah but Israel, its closest Middle East ally. Israel wants territorial expansion as well as peace based on military pre-eminence and US pressure on the Arabs and the distraught Palestinians. To this end, Israel perceives Iran's development of nuclear technology as a mortal threat, not because Iran will inevitably produce nuclear weapons but because its rise represents a military deterrence to Israeli military supremacy in the region. In this sense, Israel should be the priority target of the Obama Middle East strategy. The problem is that both Israel and the US know well the limits of any effective pressure the administration can bring to bear on its close ally, compared to that it can exercise on its vulnerable Arab interlocutors.
* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington, DC. He also served as director of United Nations Radio and Television in New York.
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