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.

Charles Dharapak/AP
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.

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

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.

“But you also need to have Israeli and Palestinian leaderships in place, people who can make a deal on behalf of their people, and that isn’t the case right now.”

The US “shouldn’t do nothing” while awaiting Israel’s elections, says Mr. Alterman, a former member of the State Department’s policy planning staff. But on the other hand, attempting a major diplomatic push before the elections “is hasty and misdirected energy,” he says.

The state of Palestinian leadership makes the moment all the more difficult, he adds. “One of the greatest consequences of the Gaza war is how it undermined Abbas’s credibility. He didn’t emerge as a great national leader,” Alterman says, “and that has deep implications for how the US might move forward.”

Indeed, the US will have to decide the approach it is going to take to Palestinian leadership before launching any major diplomatic effort concerning postwar Gaza.

Obama assured Israeli leadership in his phone call Wednesday that the US will be an active participant in efforts to shut down cross-border arms smuggling into the hands of Hamas fighters in Gaza. But the Obama administration will have to decide whom among the Palestinians it will work with in addressing Gaza’s humanitarian and reconstruction needs, other regional experts say. Another issue these experts see for the administration: What kind of Palestinian leadership can it realistically hope to see that could return to peace negotiations?

“There’s going to have to be the equivalent of a [Palestinian] national unity government,” says Martin Indyk, a former US ambassador to Israel now at the Brookings Institution in Washington. “We are far from that at the moment, but unless there’s some kind of political accommodation between Hamas and Fatah,” it will be very hard for Mr. Abbas to make concessions to the Israelis and move toward a final settlement, he says.

Another possible choice is for the Obama administration to continue in the path taken by the Bush administration – focusing on building up the Fatah-governed West Bank as a model for Gaza residents, who voted Hamas into power.
Perhaps the best the Obama administration can do in the current context, Mr. Indyk says, is to launch a major humanitarian and rebuilding effort for Gaza under the control of the Palestinian Authority’s technocratic government run by Prime Minister Salam Fayyad. In a recent discussion with reporters, Indyk suggested this would be a way to “reintroduce” the Palestinian Authority back into Hamas-controlled Gaza.

Naming such a respected figure and tested negotiator as Mr. Mitchell to the Middle East dossier immediately communicates the president’s seriousness about the region’s importance, analysts say. Mitchell previously headed a commission formed by President Clinton to report on solutions to Middle East violence.

Mr. Holbrooke, who was named the administration’s special representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan, was the architect of the Dayton Accords that brought peace to Bosnia and Herzegovina in the 1990s. Holbrooke is now being tapped by Secretary Clinton and the president to pursue what Clinton called “an integrated strategy” for pursuing the war in Afghanistan and the impact Pakistan has there.

Obama’s aims on the diplomacy front would be bolstered, some regional experts add, by another anticipated naming: longtime Middle East diplomat and former Clinton administration peace coordinator Dennis Ross to assist Clinton on Middle East issues, including Iran.

Given the particularly difficult regional context the administration confronts as it seeks to honor a campaign pledge about reinvigorating Mideast peace efforts, the best Obama can do may be to signal his determination by naming envoys and then wait for a more propitious moment.

“With so many crises demanding his attention and definitely the economic situation in this country having to be his first priority, it doesn’t make sense for him to engage in the Middle East in a way that could lead to an early failure that will affect his credibility,” Indyk says. “But it’s a hot situation and he’s made a commitment to try to move the Palestinian problem toward resolution. So he has a need to do something there, and it’s an urgent need.”

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