Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Obama's Open-Minded Middle East Solution

Washington Post discussion

The Current Discussion: Are Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama on a collision course over Iran and the Palestinian problem? What would be the consequences of a breach between the United States and Israel?

One of the assurances that Israel has always had is the unwavering support of Washington, both when Israel is harmed and when it acts to harm others in response to its own perception of threat. President Obama, it would seem, is taking a slight detour from this established principle of U.S. foreign policy; keeping Israel as the cornerstone of U.S. policy in the Middle East, but effectively seeking a dialogue with Iran and at the same time wanting to push both Israel and the Palestinians to work out peace. While on the face of it there is nothing new in this approach, look at it in the rhetorical context of how past American administrations have handled Middle East policy. President Obama's approach is more open-minded and more interesting. His call to lead the world through example and deeds rather than simply by bullying has resonated well with many countries.
The Israeli position, as much as it professes the need for peace, takes as a starting point that peace must meet Israeli demands, which of course include the immediate cessation of all nuclear activity by Iran and a dismemberment of Hamas in Palestine. Yes, Iran must stop any activity related to the procurement of nuclear weapons and open itself up for international monitoring. But by the same logic Israel, too, must come clean on its own nuclear weapons, which it does possess, and to come to an agreement with the IAEA on how it intends to dismantle its own nuclear arsenal. If the logic is that it needs them for its defense, then clearly other countries, be they Iran or Mongolia, can make the same argument. As for Hamas, we often forget that it was elected into power. While it does resort to violence, which it too must renounce, the fact remains that its political future must be decided by the ballot box and not by pressure from abroad.

President Obama will face the wrath of many of the hawks in the U.S. State Department on his foreign policy initiatives as he tempers threats with dialogue in the Middle East. While it may not win him friends on the right of the political spectrum, it will certainly bring back fairness to the attempt for peace on the region. The chief complaint for the past three or more decades has been that the U.S. government has never really been balanced and fair in its handling of the Arab world, especially when it came to the issue of Israel. I am not suggesting that President Obama will or should abandon Israel, though the sad truth is that when he does ask for moderation in U.S. support and seek fairness and dialogue, many will assume that Israel has been abandoned.

Israel's preferred solution for Iran would be to first bomb their suspected nuclear sites, as they did with Iraq in 1981. But the world is different place than it was then. It is also well known that after Pakistan acquired nuclear weapons capabilities, Israel drew up a contingency plan to use Sri Lankan airbases for which they had operational rights, to see if they could disable Pakistan's nuclear capability. The fact that all this never happened does not mean that Israel was never planning such moves. It highlights the underlying mindset of how Tel Aviv would wish to resolve things in the Middle East. Obama has a sincerity of purpose and a resolve for showing the way without force which his predecessor grossly lacked.

While people might assume a U.S.-Israel falling out with the new Obama policy, that's highly unlikely. Strains will appear, but a complete breakdown will not happen. It would be helpful if Israelis also understood that the constraints of world policy are complex. While peace in the Middle East is of paramount importance, there is a need to consider a strategic peace effort which is good for all, not just for a few. The consequences of these changes in U.S. policy will at worst mean a sulking Israeli Prime Minister and at best a realization that the road to peace in the Middle East does not only lead through Tel Aviv. If anything, it goes through all the capitals of the Middle East.