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Obama’s Emerging Middle East Map

By: Patrick Seale, Al Arabiya News Channel


The utter determination of Barack Obama to bring peace to the Middle East is no longer in doubt. The U.S. President’s manner is gentle. He seeks to persuade rather than coerce. He gives precedence to the carrot rather than the stick. But the iron will is there. It would be rash indeed for Arabs or Israelis to attempt to thwart him. 

Right across the region the message is sinking in. We are beginning to witness what might be called the ‘Obama effect.’

Obama’s goals are clear. He is absolutely convinced that American national interests demand an end to Israel’s conflicts with its neighbors, and an end, also, to America’s thirty-year quarrel with Iran. He wants to coax Iran back into the circle of friendly nations, and bring Israel back to international legality by ending its occupation of Palestinian territory. Israel and Iran are the two inter-connected wings of his Middle East policy.

While Israel is a close U.S. ally and Iran is an opponent, there is a striking similarity in Obama’s approach to both, which might be summarized as follows: ‘We have no wish to interfere in your internal affairs or dictate how you should behave -- you are sovereign nations and must make your own decisions -- but we believe it would be in your best interest to heed our advice.’

The clear implication in both cases is that they must expect penalties for non-compliance – penalties which are spelled out forcefully in the case of Iran, while being hinted at more discreetly in the case of Israel, but the meaning is the same. If Iran and Israel want good relations with Obama, they had better not obstruct his goals.

Washington insiders report that the Iraq war marked a crucial turning point in Obama’s thinking. He was outraged by the role of Washington’s pro-Israeli neo-cons in pushing the United States into war -- a war which Obama opposed and which has proved immensely costly to the U.S. in men, treasure and reputation. The U.S., Obama felt, had lost control of its foreign policy to special interest groups. He is determined never to allow this to happen again. Hence his resolve to bring the disastrous Iraqi adventure to a close, and to resist Israeli pressure to attack Iran, or to allow Israel to do so.

The U.S. President wants a comprehensive peace in the Middle East, not just a partial peace – that is to say peace between Israel and the Palestinians, Israel and Syria, Israel and Lebanon, and normalization of Israel’s relations with the entire Arab world. This ambitious goal has become his personal priority.

That was the message which America’s ‘A team’ – special peace envoy George Mitchell, National Security Adviser General James Jones, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates – brought to the region this past week. While Gen Jones reassured Israel of America’s continued commitment to its security; and while Secretary Gates urged Iran to grasp Obama’s outstretched hand or face stiffer sanctions; Mitchell told Israel’s Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that peace was the only real guarantee of Israel’s long-term security, and this meant making ‘difficult choices’, particularly regarding settlements on Palestinian land.

The ‘Obama effect’ may be seen in Israel’s recent easing of some of the West Bank’s 600 odd checkpoints, which cripple the Palestinian economy and make life a misery. It may be seen, too, in Israel’s declared intention to set up a special unit charged with the task of dismantling a score of illegal outposts in one fell sweep. It may be seen in Netanyahu focus on Arab East Jerusalem and on Israel’s alleged right to build there – no doubt a ploy to distract American attention from the wider question of the complete settlement freeze, which Obama is insisting on.

The rapid improvement in U.S. relations with Damascus, including a pledge to lift commercial sanctions, is another pointer to Obama’s quest for a comprehensive peace settlement. At the same time, Turkey – which has emerged as a major Middle East player – is ready to resume its role as a broker between Syria and Israel. Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan held a meeting with President Bashar al-Asad in Aleppo earlier this month.

The ‘Obama effect’ may also be seen in a couple of recent articles in the New York Times by its Israeli correspondent Ethan Bronner. In one, he reported that Hamas had suspended its use of rockets and was now putting the emphasis on ‘cultural resistance’, rather than ‘armed resistance.’ In the other, he made the surprising discovery that the ultra-orthodox Jewish inhabitants of Modiin Illit – 45,000 residents and 60 births a week – a city built on West Bank land captured in 1967, ‘do not consider themselves settlers or Zionists and express no commitment to being in the West Bank.’ The suggestion is that they would be ready to move back into Israel proper.

While pressing Israel to give up its expansionist ambitions, Obama has been urging Arab states to make gestures of reconciliation towards Israel, so as to win over Israeli opinion to the benefits of peace. Inevitably, Egypt and Jordan, countries already at peace with Israel, are being recruited for this task.

Some commentators have interpreted Egypt’s acceptance of the passage of Israeli warships through the Suez Canal as a warning to Iran. It might also be seen, however, as a reminder to Israel that Arab hostility is not eternal, and that better times could be around the corner, once Israel ends its oppression of the Palestinians.

Slowly but surely, with several deft strokes by the American President, we are seeing the possible emergence of a new Middle East map. But these are still early days. Washington has apparently not yet decided whether to announce its own detailed peace plan, or simply to continue to put firm but friendly pressure on the parties.

In any event, peace is unlikely to break out without a struggle. Diehard settlers will put up a fight. Fearing civil war – or at a minimum the collapse of his coalition – Netanyahu will hesitate to confront them forcefully. Provocations are to be expected by extremists on both sides.

But, all things considered, the ‘Obama effect’ is beginning to work. It is the most promising prospect the region has known for many years.

*Published in the London-based AL-HAYAT on July 31.