Thursday, August 6, 2009

Obama, far-sighted peacemaker or naïve meddler?

If Obama's real diplomatic agenda is to achieve a breakthrough, a united front between Israel and the Arab states facing the Iranian threat accross the Gulf, and his adherance to the failed concept of peace between Israel and the Palestinians is diplomatic cover, then he and his administration will, in managing international affairs, be head and shoulders above any since the 1940's. If not, then Obama and his team of experts will simply add another sorry chapter to the long tradition of US bungling and misadventures in the Middle East.
"President Barack Obama is getting set for some military arm-twisting against Iran spearheaded by Israel." One day the US threatens Israel with sanctions for threatening to attack Iran's nuclear facilities. One week later, Hillary warns that, "it is unacceptable for Iran to have nuclear weapons." And adding muscle to the threat Defense Secretary Gates arrives in Israel to discuss military options. What's real, what not in reporting regarding the US-Israel relationship? When Israel threatens to attack Iran is the threat substantive and imminent, or theatre, the Israeli bad cop playing to Obama's good cop? When Clinton demands a complete halt to settlement construction across the Green Line is that really US policy, or is it just a bone to the Arab street? And when news media warn of a crisis in Israel-US relations is the whispered information feeding those reports accurate or slanted to create an impression serving a hidden diplomatic purpose?

The Palestine Problem: The US and most of the world have long tired of the Israel-Palestine issue, are anxious for a quick fix. Accepting the Arab assertion that Palestine is the reason for all that ails the Middle East, not the corruption and police-state controls feeding unrest at home, then the simple answer for the simple problem is for powerful Israel to bend and grant the Palestinians a state. Except that, since the introduction of the Saudi Plan and for decades before, the Palestinians never fielded a leadership capable of defining and achieving that goal. And today the Palestinian leadership, such as it is, is more divided than ever, divided politically and geographically, Hamas and Fateh engaged in a cold civil war. In short, unless and until the Palestinians can achieve a level of political and social maturity and competence it makes no sense to expect an ersatz Palestine to even manage the complexity of everyday affairs of self-governance.
So why does Obama make a Palestinian state the lynchpin of his Middle East diplomacy? Is it possible that the Administration is really as committed to the primacy of Palestinian statehood as they appear in public? I, for one, prefer to believe that Obama, Mitchell and Ross are more rational and realistic than their public diplomacy describes.

The Saudi Plan: The Saudi's too set creation of a Palestinian state as precondition for Israel-Arab peace, a condition set at the time the Plan was introduced. But in the intervening years conditions on the ground have significantly changed. Not just that the Palestinians are farther from that goal but, more importantly, the rapid growth of the Iranian threat in the wake of the US invasion of Iraq. While Ahmadinejad describes Iranian ambitions as anti-Israel, and not a threat to the Arab world, Arab states from the Persian Gulf to the Atlantic know that Iranian ambitions are more dangerous to themselves than to Israel. The Saudis, for example, following the Israeli example, are building a wall entirely surrounding the kingdom, coast through desert, protection against Iran. They are also reported to have "quietly" informed Israel that the IAF could use Saudi airspace should the decision to attack the Islamic Republic be finalized. Then there is the transit of an Israeli submarine and other warships through the Suez Canal, in support of an assumed future decision to attack Iran. Iranian ambitions and the nuclear threat have stripped the fig leaf from the already existing Arab-Israel military alliance.

If the Saudis feel the need for domestic consumption to demand a conciliatory gesture from Israel to allow them to come out of the closet regarding their involvement with Israel, then the precondition definitely should not depend on an improbable Palestinian renaissance involving political and social maturity.

Obama's Grand Strategy? I began this article suggesting that President Obama and his highly experienced staff of advisors and emissaries in matters Middle East might not be so naïve and unrealistic as America's public diplomatic posture suggests. Enter the US outreach to Syria. As prime minister, Ehud Barak and Hafez al-Assad were reportedly within meters of Kineret coastline of signature. That agreement, including the legendary Rabin "pocket," secret promises presumably involving the return of the Golan should Syria meet certain conditions, already exists. Unlike the highly unstable and politically immature Palestinians, for better or worse Syria is relatively stable and mature. In fact, Israeli military and intelligence experts describe Syria as assiduously adhering to all agreements between the two adversaries since the end of the 1967 war.

Obama is returning a US ambassador to Syria, and Mitchell, his emissary to Arab-Israeli peace declared, following his recent meeting with Assad, that Syria is an important player in regional stability, a moderating influence over Hamas, etc. If Israel is to expend time and effort any way, then doing so with a more responsible governing authority holds more promise of success than with an ungoverned and ungovernable social entity. In previous negotiations the Syrians proved to be shrewd and tenacious. If past experience serves, they will be no easier today. But at least Israel is dealing with an entity offering the possibility of a serious negotiation, if not necessarily assuring its success.

But whether or not Palestine is ever capable of statehood and the responsibilities of self-governance; whether or not Israel and Syria actually succeed this go-around in signing on the line, the main problem facing Israel and the Arab states is the Iranian threat, and an open and formal alliance between Israel and the Arabs is the most effective way to contain that threat.
If containing Iran is the real diplomatic agenda of the Obama Administration camouflaged behind the chimera of an Israel-Palestine "roadmap;" then this president may prove to be the most diplomatically far-sighted and effective since the 1940's. If not, if this initiative turns out to be exactly as it appears, then the "Obama Initiative" will go down as just another naïve American misadventure in the quagmire of Middle East politics. And Obama and his experts will simply add one more chapter to a very long tradition of US bungling in the Middle East.

Postscript: Following writing this article two pieces appeared in the media throwing further light on the conduct of US diplomacy, and the apparently intimate policy coordination between the Obama Administration and the Netanyahu Government.

An article appearing in the Washington Times on 29 July quotes former Defense Secretary William S. Cohen, refering to recent visits to Aab capitals, "in the past, the first thing I'd get was a lecture about Israel....I no longer receive that, and when I go and travel, what I hear is, there is greater fear of Iran than there is animus toward Israel."

And a 30 July DEBKAfile article: “As recently as Sunday, July 26, a Washington sources quoted a US official as asking Israel to create "military background noise" that would harass Tehran without triggering an outright military clash, whether with Iran or its surrogates, the Lebanese Hizballah and the Palestinian Hamas.

But in the last three days, fresh reports have come out of Tehran indicating that US-Israeli coordination on the Iranian threat was lagging far behind developments. The Herzliya conference therefore switched its agenda to address urgent steps, in addition to the military pressure, for expediting Ahmadinejad's eclipse.”