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With Obama, what change for Mideast?

On Thursday he named George Mitchell as a special envoy, and he has already signaled that the US will reengage the region.

By Staff writer / January 22, 2009

Obama's diplomacy team: Leading the charge will be Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (c.), who started her new job Thursday, Jan. 22. Joining her will be Richard Holbrooke (far left) and former Sen. George Mitchell (far right) as special envoys to Pakistan and Afghanistan, and the Middle East, respectively.

Charles Dharapak/AP

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Washington

President Obama has lost little time upon taking office in keeping a campaign promise to ramp up US diplomacy, especially in the Middle East.

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On Thursday, he joined Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Vice President Joseph Biden, and his national security advisers at lunch at the State Department to discuss ways of implementing “the administration’s pledge to enhance diplomatic efforts to advance American interests,” the White House said.

The meeting also served as the venue for naming two special envoys: former Senate Democratic leader George Mitchell for the Middle East and former ambassador Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Perhaps the key question now is whether reinvigorated American diplomacy will find the partners in the Middle East it needs to move forward such daunting challenges as Arab-Israeli peace and Palestinian statehood.

The naming of special envoys follows the signal Mr. Obama sent of a new US involvement in the region “from Day 1” of his administration. On Wednesday, he took time out of a busy first full day in office to call the leaders of Israel, the Palestinian Authority (PA), Egypt, and Jordan, discussing his intentions for the United States to play a key role in building on a cease-fire in Gaza.

Also on Wednesday, Obama reviewed with his national security team and top military commanders prospects for the troop withdrawal he wants from Iraq.

Although Obama’s quick focus on the Middle East underscores how important stability and peace there remain to US interests, it also drew attention to the leadership void in the region that will complicate, if not stymie, US diplomatic efforts.

Israel is approaching elections Feb. 10 that may not result in a new government for several weeks after that. After having united behind the Saudi-launched Arab peace initiative, Arab countries face new schisms among their leaders in the Gaza war’s aftermath – over how to deal with Gaza and Hamas and over what approach to take with Israel. And most daunting of all, the divide between the West Bank’s Fatah leadership and Hamas is deeper than ever, with PA President Mahmoud Abbas weaker and further marginalized.

Given the flux, Obama may find the seeds of his good intentions falling on rocky and arid soil, some experts in the region say.

“Obviously if you wait for everything to fall into place in the Middle East, you’re going to wait a long time,” says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East Program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington.

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