Analysis: Will next US president give priority to Iran, or to Israel-Palestinian conflict?

Israel watching Obama's appointments for signs of where US Mideast policy is headed.

obama aipac 248 88 ap (photo credit: AP)
obama aipac 248 88 ap
(photo credit: AP)
Jerusalem is carefully watching the posturing in Washington over top Middle East policy positions in the new administration, hoping this will provide clues into President-elect Barrack Obama's priorities. "Everybody is extremely interested in this, chasing after every bit of information," one source in Jerusalem said. "There is a great deal of apprehension, with the feeling that who Obama picks for the top slots will give an indication [of] whether he wants to tackle the Iranian situation first, or deal first with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict." For instance, if someone like former Mideast envoy Dennis Ross were selected to a top post, perhaps as Obama's special Middle East envoy or coordinator, this would signal to Israel that Obama first wanted to focus on Iran and the nuclear issue. If, however, he gave the nod to former US ambassadors to Israel Dan Kurtzer or Martin Indyk, the feeling is that his priority would be on the Palestinian-Israeli track. "People like Ross are seen as tougher on Iran," the source said. "People like Kurtzer are seen as feeling that if you deal with the Israeli-Palestinian situation, you could jump-start a dynamic that could change the Middle East and also have a trickle-down effect on Iran." Israeli diplomatic officials said Jerusalem had very little information as to what the structure of Obama's Middle East team would look like, or whether he would appoint a Middle East envoy or coordinator. One diplomatic official, however, said that rather than just concentrating on Obama, Israel should be paying close attention to who secretary-of-state-designate Hillary Clinton picked for top Middle East positions at the State Department, especially whom she tapped to replace David Welch, the assistant secretary for Near Eastern affairs. According to this source, having chosen Clinton as his secretary of state, Obama would be hesitant - and Clinton wouldn't sit back and let it happen - to go over her head on the Middle East and appoint someone who would detract from her authority. "Obama is going to have to be sensitive to breaking down Hillary's authority, and I assume he will be," one official said. "I also assume she won't acquiesce in letting authority be taken from her." Obama's Middle East advisers, and who had the upper hand among them, has been an issue of key speculation both in Jerusalem and for the American Jewish community from the early days of the election campaign, when the names of former US national security advisers Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, men considered by many Israel supporters as unsympathetic to Israel, were bandied about as being among Obama's top advisers. While Scowcroft has reportedly held a couple of phone conversations with Obama since the November elections, and while he and Brzezinski have dispensed advice to Obama through an article in The Washington Post about what his Middle East priorities should be, the feeling in Jerusalem is that neither of them will have any formal position, but will rather be in the capacity of "wise elder statesmen" whose advice would be sought after on an ad hoc basis. One US official said it was clear that the financial crisis in the US was the first issue Obama would have to tackle after his inauguration on January 20, an issue that would demand a great deal of his time, energy and political clout. The official said that his top foreign priorities would likely be - in the following order - Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. These issues, the official said, would likely "be on his desk" and get his personal attention. Other issues, the official speculated, would likely be delegated to Clinton or Obama's national security adviser, James Jones, including the Israel-Arab conflict, North Korea and US relations with Russia and China. The official said it was likely that Clinton would take what US Condoleezza Rice had achieved in the Annapolis process and "make it her own." "Things are moving in the right direction, the sides are talking, the Palestinian security services are beginning to work, things are coordinated and there isn't friction. Quietly, and without a lot of fanfare, things are changing in the West Bank," the official said. He added that since Jones had been the special envoy for Middle East security for nearly a year and was responsible for putting some of these developments in motion, he wouldn't want to see them summarily swept aside when the new administration took over.