Thursday, January 6, 2011

What Obama Can Do In The Middle East

By George S. Hishmeh
This commentary was published in The Jordan Times on 07/01/2011

Barack Obama must be very disappointed these days since he was hardly applauded in the American media, which reviewed his domestic and foreign policies, especially his stance on the Middle East, at the beginning of the century’s second decade.

In foreign affairs, his “signature issue” during his first two years has been the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, which disappointingly remains in limbo, despite his key appointment of former senator George Mitchell as his Middle East peace envoy just as he stepped triumphantly into the White House.

The then popular American president was hoping to reach a settlement within a year after the direct talks where launched last September. Even his regrettable attempt at appeasing Israel with a significant arms and financial deal failed to prompt the right-wing Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to abandon its colonial expansion into the Palestinian territories occupied after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Surprisingly, there was hardly a review in the American media about US Middle East policies, past or future, an indication that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict may not be all that prominent for American readers. But more likely, all reviewers were at loss as to what to expect from Obama after his “shellacking” in the mid-term elections.

However, there is no doubt the Middle East, especially settling the Arab-Israeli conflict, is one of the key issues that will affect the US role in world affairs, a point the president recognised in his early appointment of Mitchell.

Another key issue is the continued commitment of US troops to the region - Iraq and Afghanistan - for many months to come.

But how can Obama surmount his “biggest disaster” to date in the Middle East, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, despite the surprising Republican control of the House of Representatives?

He has simply to outmanoeuvre his opponents in Congress, as was the case with his unexpected appointment last week during a congressional recess of a new ambassador to Syria, Robert Ford, who had been named to that position several months ago, but about who Congress did not take any action because of the influence of some pro-Israel representatives.

Another step he ought to take is to work more closely with European leaders and the United Nations, especially the so-called Quartet on the Middle East, composed of the United Nations, the European Union, the United States and Russia, which has been sidelined by the Obama administration. The Quartet’s special envoy is the former British prime minister, Tony Blair.

Moreover, the growing number of governments, especially from South America, who have recently announced their recognition of the Palestinian state should provide the Obama administration with more ammunition to twist Israel’s arm; the latter is reported concerned by the number of states rallying to the support of the Palestinian leadership.

The sooner Obama comes to grips with the decades-long conflict the better he can help with the serious problems facing this oil-rich and strategic region. These include the recent terrorist attacks on Christians in Egypt and Iraq, where many lives have been lost, the ageing of several Arab leaders whose absence may change the region’s nature, the likely division of the Sudan, where the southern region may vote on January 9 to secede and form an independent state, and the anticipated turmoil that could erupt in Lebanon once the international court takes a decision about the assassination of the former prime minister, Rafik Hariri.

Not least of all is the survival of the shaky regime that has just been installed in Iraq, as well as Turkey’s and Iran’s growing roles in Middle East affairs, much to the chagrin of Israel.

The beginning of a new decade in the region should usher, most likely with the support of the US, much-needed and vibrant democracies, not fake ones where parliaments amount to nothing more than instruments in the hands of one ruler. In this respect, it is high time that the region should begin to establish independent media financed by advertising rather than governments.

Foreign firms should be encouraged to begin advertising in the media so that the publishers can stand on their feet, which is rarely the case in many of the region countries.

All this could begin to develop once the region’s most serious problem, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, is settled honourably and fairly.

Here is where Obama needs to focus in the next few months, if not weeks, rather than continuously yield to Israeli pressure, just like the latest Netanyahu demand who, publicly and arrogantly, appealed for the release of Jonathan Pollard, the US intelligence analyst who was convicted of spying for Israel and whom the Israeli prime minister had once visited in jail.

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