U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates sought to reassure moderate Arab countries during last week’s trip to the Middle East. He told them the Obama administration’s efforts to improve relations with Iran will not hurt the interests of long-standing regional allies, such as Egypt and Saudi Arabia.
Secretary Gates told Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak that Washington will be “open and transparent” about contact with Iran and will keep its allies informed throughout the process. He also said the idea of a “grand bargain” between Washington and Tehran was unrealistic and should not be a reason for worry.
An Arab-American Perspective
Arab-American journalist Claude Salhani, international editor for United Press International, says it is not yet clear to what degree Arabs were truly reassured by Secretary Gates’ words, but he feels encouraged. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA’s International Press Club, Salhani says everyone with whom he has talked has told him, “There is something cooking.”
According to Claude Salhani, people in the Arab world think there may be a surprise in store, but it will not be clear until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visits President Obama in Washington next week. Salhani notes that Binyamin Ben-Eliezer, one of Mr. Netanyahu’s cabinet ministers, recently told Ha’aretz newspaper, “Netanyahu will surprise us. He is a changed man.” According to Ben-Eliezer, Prime Minister Netanyahu says he will not attack Iran. Furthermore, he believes “Netanyahu is open both to negotiations with Palestinians and to a two-state solution.”
Claude Salhani notes “there have been rumors floating around that the Arabs are about to accept giving up the right of return of Palestinian refugees to historic Palestine in exchange for equally important concessions.” Salhani suggests that might mean Israel will agree to evacuate some West Bank settlements.
An Israeli Perspective
But Israeli journalist Nathan Guttman of the Jewish Daily Forward says Israel remains extremely skeptical about U.S. plans for engaging Iran. He says, “Israelis don’t believe much can come out of this diplomatic engagement, and they would rather move forward with tougher sanctions right away.” At the same time, he notes, Israelis are aware the American public overwhelmingly supports the idea of engaging with Iran. “But they would like to make sure the United States doesn’t go on with these talks forever while Iran goes on enriching uranium,” he explains.
Guttman says, “Israel is trying to be pragmatic about the Obama administration’s strategy, as revealed by Secretary Gates.” According to Guttman, the diplomatic rationale is “to show the world America tried diplomacy before turning to other avenues.”
An Iranian Perspective
A number of regional analysts believe a less conservative president than Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be chosen in Iran’s presidential elections next month. And that might signal an opening with the West.
Iranian journalist Babak Yektafar, editor of Washington Prism, says he thinks the so-called “Iranian threat” is something the Arab states have exaggerated. Yektafar suggests the underlying motive is “to try to stop Iran from becoming a regional power.” Furthermore, he says, “Arabs are not happy that Iran has inserted itself into one of the most important issues – the Middle East conflict – and that Mr. Ahmadinejad is becoming a hero to the average Arab on the street.” Essentially it boils down to a struggle for power, Babak Yektafar insists.
Possible Solutions to the Impasse
King Abdullah of Jordan has suggested what he calls a “57-state solution” to the Middle East conflict. Claude Salhani explains that means “getting everybody to agree to solve all the outstanding issues at the same time.” There are actually three separate conflicts in the Middle East – the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Israeli-Syrian conflict, and the Syrian-Lebanese conflict. According to Salhani, “if you try to solve them one by one, you are going to have the spoilers – people who don’t want peace in the Middle East – undermining what you’ve done.”
Meanwhile the White House has announced that later this month President Barak Obama will welcome “key partners” in an effort to achieve a comprehensive peace in the Middle East. He will host Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu on May 18, Egyptian President Mubarak on May 26, and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on May 28.