US President-elect Barack Obama appears to be missing a unique opportunity to demonstrate that his efforts to bring peace and stability to the Middle East will differ from substantially those of his predecessor. That would be to include an Arab-American and possibly an Iranian-American in his line-up of Middle East negotiators – a move that would largely break with tradition which hitherto involved almost exclusively negotiators with a Jewish or Christian background.
Granted, such a move would immediately set off alarm bells in Jerusalem and probably in The American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, already uncertain of what the Obama administration means for US Middle East policy, but it would send a signal to the Arab and Muslim world at a moment that unconditional US support for Israel's Gaza offensive has fueled public anger at a United States that is fighting an uphill battle to win hearts and minds.
International Herald Tribune columnist Roger Cohen jokes that he has the scoop on Obama's line-up: Shibley Telhami, Vali Nasr, Fawaz Gerges, Fouad Moughrabi and James Zogby, all widely respected, prominent Arab and Iranian Americans whose views on the Middle East may not be pro-Israel but are certainly moderate and even-handed. "…forget the above, I've let my imagination run away with me. Barack Obama has no plans for this line-up on the Israeli-Palestinian problem and Iran. In fact, the people likely to play significant roles on the Middle East in the Obama administration read rather differently," Cohen writes.
In fact, Obama's line-up as described by Cohen and others, including, Steve Rosen, a controversial former AIPAC official and driving force behind the lobby who was indicted on charges of passing classified information to Israel. Rosen monitors the shaping of Obama's Middle East team and policy on his blog, Obama Mideast Monitor. Obama's team is likely to include Dennis Ross, a veteran Middle East peace negotiator for past Democratic and Republican administrations and a consultant to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, University of Texas Lyndon B. Johnson School of Public Affairs dean James (Jim) B. Steinberg, former US ambassador to Egypt and Israel Daniel C. Kurtzer, long time Obama aide Dan Shapiro and former US ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk.
"Now, I have nothing against smart, driven, liberal, Jewish (or half-Jewish) males; I've looked in the mirror…. They're knowledgeable, broad-minded and determined. Still, on the diversity front they fall short. On the change-you-can-believe-in front, they also leave something to be desired," Cohen says, focusing on the fact that Ross has little success to show for years of attempting to mediate peace between Israelis and Arabs. "I don't feel encouraged - not by the putative Ross-redux team, nor by the nonbinding resolutions passed last week in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The former offered 'unwavering commitment' to Israel. The latter recognized 'Israel's right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza.' Neither criticized Israel."
To be sure, Obama has had to stress his support for Israel during the election campaign to overcome widespread doubts and questions in the Jewish as well as the non- Jewish pro-Israel community in the United States. There is no doubt about his support, particularly on the fundamental issues: Israel's right to exist within secure borders. Yet, Obama seemed to signal a break with the Bush administration's policies when during the campaign he said: "I think there is a strain within the pro-Israel community that says unless you adopt an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel, then you're anti-Israel, and that can't be the measure of our friendship with Israel. If we cannot have an honest dialogue about how do we achieve these goals, then we're not going to make progress."
To the degree that Obama intends to change US policy in the Middle East, he will have to contend with a US public that is overwhelmingly sympathetic to Israel as evidenced in the resolutions Cohen mentions that were passed by the US Congress. Critics and opponents of Israel like to blame that on the power of AIPAC. No doubt AIPAC sways significant influence. That it is able to do so is in part a testimony to its success but equally a testimony to the dismal failure of Arabs and Palestinians to do what it takes to create a credible voice of their own in Washington.
That is beginning to change and the track record of Cohen's suggested names of Arab and Iranian Americans who could be included in Obama's Mideast team bears witness to that. But changing deeply ingrained public perceptions and sentiments does not occur overnight. For too long, and even today if one looks at the torturous and convoluted language of the likes of Hamas that is similar to the process of change of concept and terminology Yasser Arafat's Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) went through, Arabs and Palestinians refused to express themselves in clear and unambiguous language. Too often, they were unwilling to spell out or think through in public convoluted and veiled messages they were sending, wrongly hoping that by moving a millimeter someone would send them the life raft they would need to reach land. They were too afraid of giving away the store before having an assurance that the pay off would be acceptable and too frightened of reaction in their domestic constituencies to a policy that would lead to recognition or at least acceptance of Israel's existence.
The value of having an Arab or Iranian American on the team is illustrated in Cohen's quoting of "Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East" written by Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky. The book describes the problems that arose at Clinton's Camp David peace negotiations encountered by US negotiators because they lacked the expertise on Islam and an Arab perspective. To bridge that gap, negotiators had to call in the State Department's top Arabic translator because "the lack of cross-cultural negotiating skills was so acute."
The Gaza war may not have tipped the balance but the daily reporting from inside the strip and the images of the carnage and suffering of innocent men, women and children is casting doubt on the proportionality of the Israeli response to Hamas' rocket attacks and undermining the moral benefit of the doubt that Israel has long enjoyed in the West. The cost benefit analysis of the damage the war has done to Israel's image versus what it ultimately will have achieved on the ground has yet to be done. That may make it easier for Obama should he really wish to change US policy. "The fact remains … that the growing human tragedy in Gaza is steadily raising more serious questions as to whether the kind of tactical gains that Israel now reports are worth the suffering involved," says the Center for International and Strategic Studies' Anthony H. Cordesman.
Changing US policy involves addressing issues that Israelis, Palestinians, Arabs and many Americans passionately care about. It will involve taking into account the aspirations and needs of all the parties to the conflict rather than looking at the region through the post-9/11 prism of the war on terror, the fate of Israeli settlements on the West Bank, Israel's policy of seeking to destroy or silence Palestinian voices more sensitive to Palestinian national aspirations than Israel's perception of its security needs and an effort to bring in through reconciliation with the Palestine Authority representative groups like Hamas which shares with many, if not most, Israeli and Palestinian politicians a heritage involving the use of politically motivated violence. That is no mean fete and one that demands delicate maneuvering. Including an Arab or Iranian American in Obama's team would be noticed in the Arab and Muslim world and would send a signal that would make waves but not immediately rock the boat.
Pushing for a speedy reconciliation between Hamas and the Palestine Authority could shield Gaza’s battered civilian population from renewed internecine violence once the guns in the Israel Hamas war fall silent. Fatah, the political faction headed by Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, hopes that the Israeli offensive will provide an opportunity to regain control of Gaza lost to Hamas in 2007. In addition, the Israeli offensive bolsters more radical forces in Gaza and on the West Bank, including supporters of Al Qaeda. In seeking to regain control of Gaza in the absence of reconciliation with Hamas, Fatah will have to tread carefully so that it is not seen as riding in on the wings of Israeli tanks. It has already suffered significant damage to its credibility because of its apparent siding with Israel in the first days of the offensive with Abbas holding Hamas responsible for the assault, his inability to effectively aid the Palestinians in Gaza and his failure prior to the war to produce tangible results in talks with Israel. Meanwhile, Palestinians in both Gaza and on the West Bank are likely not to emerge from the crisis broken in spirit as Israel had hoped but even more resolved to achieve statehood at whatever cost. “There will be disappointment if Fatah stops being a resistance movement after this war. Hamas will be more and more strong and this atmosphere will give Al Qaeda a real chance to start strongly in Palestine,” Hassan Qader, a long standing Fatah member on the West Bank told Al Jazeera International.
In an analysis on the website of the Brookings Institution, Martin Indyk, director of the institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy and a candidate for Obama's Middle East team, spells out his view of what the terms for an Israel Hamas ceasefire should be. The terms indicate what the Obama administration probably will look for in a Hamas Palestine Authority reconciliation. "The terms of a new truce will need to include: no rocket fire on Israeli civilians, no offensive Israeli operations, an international mechanism for enforcing a ban on smuggling offensive weapons, Palestinian Authority (PA) involvement in the control of open passages, and large-scale humanitarian and reconstruction assistance funneled through the PA rather than via Hamas," Indyk says. Indyk reference to Palestine Authority involvement rather than control of the border crossings, a reference primarily to the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Egypt appears to leave open the possibility that Hamas would not be excluded from policing the passage.
Indyk notes that achieving a ceasefire along those lines is urgent because "Islamic extremists--from al-Qaeda to Hizbollah to Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad--have gained great advantage from the anti-American anger in the Arab and Muslim world that the Gaza crisis has brought to a boil. They had feared that Obama, with his appealing narrative and middle name, would calm the waters and so dilute their influence. They now see an opportunity in the Gaza crisis to brand Obama as no different from Bush. A commitment to resolve the Palestinian problem also takes on new urgency because the potential Arab partners in this effort--from Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to the leaders of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia--need to demonstrate to their irate populations that pro-American moderation and reconciliation can actually provide a better future for the Palestinians."
If Hamas Palestine Authority reconciliation is urgent, so is tackling the settlement issue on the West Bank. The settlers' growth spells out the urgency. In 1993, when the Oslo process began, 116,000 Israelis lived in the Gaza Strip. By 2003 that number, according to the Israeli Interior Ministry, had increased to 236,000. A year after the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza and the evacuation of all settlers from the strip, the settler population on the west Bank numbered 253,000. By last year their numbers had jumped to 290,000, living alongside 2.2 million Palestinians. Another 187,000 Israelis live in annexed East Jerusalem next to 247,000 Palestinians.
"To a large degree, the Israeli and Palestinian publics have accepted the need for a two-state solution. But time, and the construction crews, are working against it. No one knows exactly where the point of no return is—when so many Israelis will have moved into so many homes beyond the pre-1967 border that there is no going back. But each passing day brings that tipping point nearer. If a solution is not achieved quickly, it might soon be out of reach," writes Gershom Gorenberg in this month's Foreign Policy magazine.
"The settlers’ growing power makes it harder for any Israeli leader to act. The head of the Shin Bet security agency recently described “very high willingness” among settlers “to use violence—not just stones, but live weapons—in order to prevent or halt a diplomatic process.” He was articulating a country’s half-spoken fears: Withdrawal involves more than the social and financial costs of moving hundreds of thousands of people. It poses the danger of civil conflict, of battles pitting Jews against Jews. The more settlers, the greater the danger. The longer the wait, the more settlers. The more settlers, the more hesitant politicians are to talk about evacuating them, much less do anything else about them. It’s anybody’s guess where the point of no return lies.... So, time is in short supply. As U.S. President Barack Obama enters office, he might be tempted to put off dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But delay may mean finding the road to a solution closed," Gorenberg says.