Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Obama should take the other road to Jerusalem

Business Times - 17 Dec 2008


IN EARLY 2002, the then US secretary of state, Colin Powell, was exploring ways to restart negotiations between the Israelis and the Palestinians that had broken down in the aftermath of the second Palestinian Intifadah (uprising).

Mr Powell was arguing that a resolution of the conflict between Jews and Arabs in the Holy Land could help lessen anti-Americanism in the Arab world and restore US power in the Middle East which had been challenged on 9/11.

The notion that the road to a more stable and pro-Western Middle East leads through Jerusalem - the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict - was very much the accepted wisdom among members of the foreign policy establishment in Washington as well the view of most of US allies who called on President George W Bush to embrace a more activist US diplomatic approach in the Middle East.

But Vice-President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld as well as the neoconservatives with influence on the administration's foreign policy insisted that the only way to re-establish the United States' dominant position in the Middle East was by ousting Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, occupying Iraq and 'remaking' the Middle East.

'The road to Jerusalem leads through Baghdad,' argued the neocons, suggesting that the emergence of a democratic and pro-American government in Baghdad would have a domino effect on the rest of the Arab world, including the Palestinians who only then would be ready to make peace with Israel.

But the American military adventure in Iraq ended up creating more political instability and anti-Americanism in the Middle East while strengthening the power of Iran and its allies in Iraq and Lebanon. At the same time, the American-sponsored free elections in Palestine brought the radical Islamic movement Hamas into power. Hamas, unlike the secular Fatah, was opposed to making any peace with Israel. This made resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict less likely and ignited more Palestinian-Israeli violence and led to an intra-Palestinian rift.

In fact, the mess in the Middle East that resulted from US policy created the conditions for the 2006 war between Israel and Hizbollah which further weakened US influence in the region and narrowed the chances for Israeli-Palestinian peace.

When Mr Bush's Freedom Agenda crashed into the reality of the election of Hamas in Palestine and the strengthening of the power of Iran, Mr Bush and his aides suggested that the Arab-Sunni states, including the moderate Palestinian leadership, and Israel form a 'strategic consensus' to contain Tehran; Washington then went through the motions of the peace process during the Annapolis Conference in 2007.

But if the road from Baghdad paved by Mr Bush and the neocons led to more wars and failed to reach Jerusalem, President-elect Barack Obama would have an opportunity to build a highway to Israeli-Palestinian peace. Mr Obama promised to reverse the Bush administration's policies in the Middle East by emphasising that the US war against terror is not part of a US-led war against Islam, by starting a dialogue with Iran (and Syria) and by trying to energise the peace process. Unfortunately, Benjamin Netanyahu, the nationalist Likud leader who most opinion polls predict will be elected as Israel's next prime minister in February 2009, has said that he was only open to the idea of 'economic peace' with the Palestinians.

This would amount to another neoconservative-Likud pipe dream: Placing a political settlement of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on the policy backburner as America - pressed by Israel and its supporters in Washington - deals with the Iranian nuclear issue. Mr Netanyahu will argue that only a military defeat of Iran and its allies would provide the right conditions for resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. As the neocons now say: 'The road to Jerusalem leads through Tehran.'

Mr Obama will need to challenge those Israelis and Arabs who want to maintain the status quo in the Middle East. Indeed, if the economic recession would prove to be shorter and more manageable than expected, then the Obama administration will be in a position to embrace a more ambitious agenda in the Middle East - accelerating the withdrawal from Iraq through a regional framework that could include Iran. The best-case scenario would be some sort of a grand diplomatic bargain with Iran, that could lead to the suspension of its nuclear military programme and the restraining of its regional allies, such as Hizbollah and Hamas.

That kind of diplomatic momentum taking place in a stable regional environment would be more conducive to the re-starting of Israel-Palestinian negotiations and would demonstrate perhaps that the road to Jerusalem goes through Washington.

Copyright © 2007 Singapore Press Holdings Ltd. All rights reserved.

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