There has been generally enthusiastic public response in the Middle East to the election November 4 of Barack Obama to be the next American president. Recent opinion polls show many, though not all, in the Arab world believe the new president will adopt policies more sympathetic to Arab concerns than those of the Bush administration. But at a recent symposium in Washington, several American experts on the Middle East expressed doubts that resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict will be high on President-elect Obama's agenda. VOA's Mohamed Elshinnawi prepared this report.
During his campaign for president and since his election victory, Barack Obama has spoken of pursuing a new and markedly different U.S. policy in the Middle East. But setting the U.S. on a new course in this troubled part of the world will be an extremely difficult challenge, according to a panel of policy experts who met recently at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington.
Aaron David Miller is a Wilson Center scholar who has served as a Middle East adviser and U.S. negotiator under six secretaries of state. Miller says that when it comes to pursuing Arab-Israeli peace, President-elect Obama faces an uphill road to re-establish U.S. credibility.
"Frankly, given our record of failure, eight years of failed peacemaking under Bill Clinton and eight years of failed war-making under George W. Bush, we have gotten to a point where we are neither admired, feared nor respected in a region that is increasingly critical to our national interests," Miller says. "I do not know what it will take to put one of these particular interests, the Arab-Israeli issue, on the front burner."
Iraq, Iran Likely Will Top Obama's Agenda in the Middle East
Miller says President-elect Obama will have other priority issues in the region that transcend the Arab-Israeli conflict. First, he will be expected to make good on his campaign promise to begin withdrawing American military forces from Iraq, according to some reasonable timetable. Second, he will need to confront the looming prospect of a nuclear-armed Iran. Miller argues that if the Obama administration is able to address the Arab-Israeli issue at all, the new president will need to step very carefully.
"No new president - certainly not one who is untested in foreign policy and on whose shoulders huge expectations have already been laid - wants to, or can, court an early failure," Miller says. "If there is any engagement that offers the prospects of success, it is clearly an Israeli-Syrian agreement for so many reasons, including the ripple effect of dealing with Hamas, Hezbullah and Iran. It [would be] so compelling if, in fact, an American president were interested."
Expert Says Obama Must Win Domestic Political Support for Peacemaking Role
But would President-elect Obama be able to muster the domestic political support to pursue a larger and more active U.S. role in Arab-Israeli peacemaking?
According to Graeme Bannerman, a scholar at the Middle East Institute and former U.S. State Department analyst, Obama will need to convince Congress and the American people that peace between Israel and its Arab neighbors is genuinely in the U.S. national interest.
"A U.S. president will prevail on foreign policy if the president says this is the national security interest of the U.S.," Bannerman says. "No domestic constituency can override the president, no matter how powerful you are. That will not happen. It will not happen because nobody wants to be in Congress and say, 'I opposed the president on something that will be in the national interest of the United States.'"
New Israeli Prime Minister's Invitation to Help Could Be Key
Richard Straus, the editor of the Middle East Policy Survey and a former legislative liaison for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), shares the view that the Arab-Israeli conflict will have to compete with other more pressing issues in the region for the attention of a new Obama administration. But Straus believes that if a new Israeli prime minister were to seek U.S. backing for a re-engagement with the six-year-old Arab peace initiative, that could put the Arab-Israeli and the Israeli-Palestinian conflicts on the front burners of the Obama's administration's Mideast agenda.
"The U.S. would respond to Israel, if Israel and the Israeli prime minister were to be the one to come to the American president and say, 'We need your help.' That would be a game-changer," Straus says. "But I think that and that alone, absent an overwhelming crisis, would be what you would need to have the United States become deeply involved."
U.S. Must Be Perceived as Honest Broker, Experts Caution
Straus notes that if President-elect Obama decides to make Arab-Israeli peace a priority, he'll be tackling a 60-year-old problem that 11 previous U.S. presidents have been unable to solve.
If the Obama Administration is to be any more successful in this arena than its predecessors, former U.S. Mideast negotiator Aaron David Miller says it will need to reclaim America's critical role as an honest broker in Mideast peace efforts.
That will take some doing, according to Miller. In the past, he says, the United States has allowed its mediator role to be undermined by a failure to challenge Israeli positions on settlements and land confiscation issues. Miller recalls how, in the aftermath of the 1973 Yom Kippur War, former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger embarked on an aggressive shuttle diplomacy initiative that ultimately led Israel, Egypt and Syria to sign an historic peace agreement.
Miller says the Obama administration should give its new secretary of state an equally strong and even-handed role in any new round of Arab-Israeli peace negotiations.