Thinking Policy (Extract)

Extract from an article in Issue 22, February 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Two highly regarded think tanks provide U.S. President Barack Obama with comprehensive, and conflicting, policy recommendations for the Middle East. It is already clear that new U.S. President Barack Obama is making good on his campaign promise that he will deal with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "from day one." On his first day in office, Obama phoned four Middle Eastern leaders: President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel, King Abdullah of Jordan, and President Mahmud Abbas of the Palestinian Authority. This is a clear indication, a presidential spokesman said, to "communicate his [Obama's] commitment to active engagement in pursuit of Arab-Israeli peace from the beginning of his term" and his "determination to work to help consolidate the cease-fire by establishing an effective anti-smuggling regime to prevent Hamas from rearming, and facilitating, in partnership with the Palestinian Authority, a major reconstruction effort for Palestinians in Gaza." Within his first week in office, Obama had already appointed his special envoy for Middle East Peace, former Senator George Mitchell, who immediately made plans to come to the region and get to work trying to push for peace - or at least a lasting cease-fire - between Israel and the Palestinians. Despite the currently bleak Mideast situation, there is optimism that Obama and his team will be able to revive the two-state solution. And, in an effort to influence U.S. policy, two of the most prominent think tanks in the United States, both located in Washington, D.C., the Saban Center of the Brookings Institution, in cooperation with the Council on Foreign Relations and the Washington Center for Near East Policy, have recently released extensive studies of the situation, complete with extensive - and contradictory - policy and operative recommendations, especially with regard to the role, or non-role, of Hamas in any future peace process. In a rare example of cooperation, the Brookings Institute and the Council of Foreign Relations, both of which are known to have close ties to the incoming administration and to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, joined forces to publish "Restoring the Balance," a 232-page volume, written by Richard N. Haass, Martin Indyk and others, based on some 18 months of research. The authors recommend a comprehensive approach to the Middle East. They argue that the situation in Gaza cannot be disconnected from the other problems in the region. Whereas the Bush administration thought the road to Jerusalem goes through Baghdad, this report argues that Tehran is the key. Therefore, they conclude, the United States should adopt a policy of dialogue with Syria and Iran and develop a new approach to Hamas. Since Syria, Hizballah and Hamas are all allied with Tehran, Iran has the power to sabotage any peacemaking efforts between Israel and the Palestinians. Furthermore, they contend, a rapprochement between the U. S. and Syria would loosen the bonds between Syria and Iran. And without Iranian and Syrian support, Hamas - especially if it is co-opted through dialogue - will find it much more difficult to object to the U.S.'s "aggressive diplomacy," as Obama has termed his new policies. This, in turn would enhance the prospect of a "grand bargain," in which Iran will give up its nuclear program and its opposition to Israeli-Palestinian peace in exchange for economic assistance and security guarantees. That is why, according to Martin Indyk, former U.S. ambassador to Israel and assistant secretary of state for the Middle East in the Clinton administration, a comprehensive approach is required and he is confident that Obama has a "more holistic approach to problems, both domestic and international. A localized fire brigade cannot prevent the whole forest going up in flames." These recommendations are clearly at odds with the policies of the Bush administration, which believed that the destruction of terrorist organizations and the establishment of democracy - by means of war - would open the gates of peace. According to the Bush doctrine, since Hamas is a terrorist organization and a proxy of Iran, the most recent war in Gaza should be viewed as a positive contribution to America's War on Terror. Instead, the authors of "Restoring the Balance" argue, Bush's policies have actually increased Iranian power and isolated the United States from developments in the region. Shibley Telhami, an associate at the Saban Center, who co-authored the essay on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict for the book, tells The Jerusalem Report that "the Bush legacy is a serious problem for an effective U.S. policy in the Middle East, because of the war in Iraq and the neglect of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which have undermined America's role and credibility as an honest broker." Prof. Telhami, an Israeli-born Arab American citizen and a political scientist who teaches at the University of Maryland, where he holds the Anwar Sadat chair for Peace, elaborates, "The Bush administration saw everything in the Middle East through the prism of the war on terror." And while he argues that the fight against terror should and will remain part and parcel of American Middle East policy, it should no longer - and, he is confident, under Obama, will no longer - be the engine of American foreign policy. "The Arab world sees and judges American behavior in the Middle East through the Palestinian prism. In Arab public opinion, the United States and Israel are much bigger threats than Iran. This is not necessarily how the regimes see the situation, but they cannot ignore public opinion without giving ammunition to extremist ideologies, such as Hizballah and Hamas," Telhami explains. Telhami has no doubt that the war in Gaza has mobilized Arab public opinion more than any previous conflict and thus strengthened the position of Hamas in the Arab world. Another prominent think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, on the other hand, recommends a modified Bush policy. Its suggestions are contained in an 85-page collection of essays published under the title, "Prevent Breakdown, Prepare for Breakthrough: How President Obama Can Promote Israeli-Palestinian Peace," and released in December. Institute director, Robert Satloff argues, in an interview with The Report, that the United States should continue to accord top priority to issues of security, by continuing to boycott Hamas as a terrorist organization and attempting to boost security in Mahmud Abbas's Palestinian Authority (PA). That way, Satloff says, the U.S. will be showing the players in the region that "cooperation can bring results, whereas the way of Hamas brings only death and destruction." Satloff, whose hawkish, neo-conservative views were in harmony with the Bush Administration, insists that engaging Hamas is a bad idea. According to Satloff, Hamas is a danger not only to Israel, but also to Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia, and therefore for the whole region. Hamas, he says, must recognize Israel before it can gain any acceptance, just as the PLO became a partner only after the same recognition. It makes no sense, he argues, to test Hamas' intentions after the fact. Extract from an article in Issue 22, February 16, 2009 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.