What’s Next in the Middle East?

I, like many, have been concerned that Barak Obama’s selection of Egypt as the site of his speech to the Muslim world would be problematic. If he wanted to give Muslims assurance of a commitment to democracy and human rights, countries like Turkey or Indonesia would have been a better platform. If he wanted to speak from within the Arab Muslim world, there is no perfect venue, but surely Jordan or Morocco would have been preferable. In Cairo Obama is in the awkward position of having to choose between tacit acceptance of dictatorship and insulting his hosts.

Yesterday’s program on “What’s Next in the Middle East” presented at the Carnegie Institute for Peace only exacerbated my concerns.  Before I explain why, let me summarize for you the views of the panelists.

Ghaith al-Omari, the Advocacy Director of the American Task Force for Palestine, was the only Arab speaker. Although he no longer works for Mahmoud Abbas, you couldn’t guess that from his presentation. He began by asserting that Abbas’ popularity is linked to the success of the negotiation process. This is only true if one insists that Abbas is the only possible spokesman for the Palestinians. Abbas was duly elected President of the Palestinian Authority, but that term of office has been absurdly overextended, while in office he has managed to dump the elected prime minister. (Well, sort of; Haniyya remains the prime minister of Gaza.)

Al-Omari characterized the mission of Lt.-Gen. Keith Dayton, who has made no secret of his pro-Fatah intervention into Palestinian affairs as stabilizing Gaza with reconstruction conducted in a manner that will not benefit Hamas. Admitting that he did not understand why everyone else seemed to feel Palestinian unity was valuable to the peace process, he opined with obvious satisfaction that Obama made it clear that there will be no change in policy towards Hamas. His main concern seemed to be that pressure on Israel may be seen as too one-sided. He suggested that Syria’s desire to end its isolation gives leverage with respect to Israeli objectives.

The other two panelists, both Jewish, had a less political and more realistic perspective on the situation. Geoffrey Aaronson is the Director of Research and Publications at the Foundation for Middle East Peace. He characterized the Bush policy as supporting the democratic process without being willing to support the outcome. He credited the new administration for coming across as less strident and less extreme, more nuanced. He believes peace is best advanced by a policy less about picking winners than about defining a negotiating space in which possibly conflicting views may be discussed.

Aaronson noted that there has yet to be a substantive engagement with Syria beyond closing out the Bush position, but lamented that “old habits die hard.” He said that the Bush language keeps showing up in the State Department Q&A. He argued that Biden’s visit to Beirut fell flat because Biden was putting U.S. prestige on one side of the election campaign. He warned that we have heard nothing about Oslo, settlement evacuation, etc., and that Netanyahu is correct to say that Israel has never agreed to freeze settlements before final status. The implication, of course, is that we should move to final status negotiations now.

For Aaronson, Lt.-Gen. Dayton has just re-upped for two more years of a counterinsurgency operations, when what is need is diplomacy. We continue to ignore Hamas, and the humanitarian crisis remains unaddressed.  The absence of any sign of intent to rethink the policy of picking Abbas as the winner and continuing to ignore the new guys on the block (Hamas) promises only more of the same failure.

Aaronson argues that there is an alternative paradigm. One must pay attention to Gaza and Hamas’ mobilization of political support there and elsewhere. He feels Ehud Barak, Minister of Defenses, is pushing back at Washington. The challenge is to move beyond “the petty details of occupation” and to seek to redefine Israeli security interests to a drawback that will enhance Israel’s security. It worked in Sinai and Aaronson says itwould work in the Golan. Aaronson wants us to think in terms of enhancing security of all in the area including Israel, Syria, and Iran. Syria is a key.

M.J. Rosenberg is the Director of Policy Analysis at the Israel Policy Forum. He opened with a confession that he looks at things from the vantage point of Capitol Hill and of Jewish organizations. He predicted that the media will soon bemoan how Obama is hurting Israel despite the fact that nothing has happened. He asserted that Israel has set the terms of debate so the media is indignant Israel is treated like any other country.

Yet, Rosenberg was optimistic because Obama has more rightly-placed calm self-confidence than any predecessor since FDR. He felt it was good that he has Rahm Emanuel at his side. He will not “go war with AIPAC,” but will treat them as just another lobby. He sees even Netanyahu’s intransigence as working for the peace process since “Livni could pull the wool over Americans’ eyes; Netanyahu can’t.”

Al-Omari was aware of rumors that the administration is planning to release its own peace plan, a hybrid of the “Roadmap” and the “Arab Initiative,” but he hasn’t seen it and in any case expects it to be revealed in stages. He said that the administration has made it clear that nothing new will be revealed in Cairo.

I would have loved to have answered Al-Omari’s question as to why everyone else seems to think Palestinian Unity would help the peace process, but, alas, I was not called upon. (The session ended 15 minutes early.)  The Israelis need someone with whom they can negotiate who truly represents the Palestinian people, not just a single faction. That’s why the Israelis have decided they need to talk to Hamas.

If Obama’s speech in Cairo signals a continuation of the Bush doctrine of supporting elections while rejecting their outcomes, the entire Arab world will conclude that that the democracy Obama offers is the Egyptian model, with Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president-for-life and the violent suppression of any (including religious consider Egypt’s treatment of the Copts as well as the Muslim Brotherhood) opposition. In Jordan or Morocco he might have finessed these issues, but, in Cairo, silence will be taken as consent.

Imad-ad-Dean Ahmad, Ph.D.
Minaret of Freedom Institute


2 responses to “What’s Next in the Middle East?”

  1. […] boasted. The Arab-Muslim world desperately needed to hear Obama say that America would no longer encourage elections and then reject their outcome. Instead, he seemed to deny that we had ever done such a thing. “Ladies and gentlemen of the […]

  2. […] What’s Next in the Middle East? | Home | News and Analysis (6/4/09) […]

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