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November 14, 2008

Four crises on Obama's horizon

This piece appears in today's Haaretz.  

No one should be surprised that president-elect Barack Obama's first press conference, three days after his historic November 4th victory, was devoted almost exclusively to the economy. Obama was also quick to remind reporters that there is only one president at a time, and his turn does not begin until January 20. While domestic challenges will dominate his agenda, a not-insignificant list of Middle East crises will confront America's 44th president as well. Here are four of the more urgent issues in which Israel has a keen interest, and which are likely to force themselves onto the Obama team transition agenda and its early days in office.

Why not start with the issue closest to home, with Israel's upcoming February 11 election? Recent American presidents have had a decidedly mixed record of intervention in Israeli elections. President Bill Clinton hastily convened the March 1996 Summit of Peacemakers at Sharm el-Sheikh, but it did not save Shimon Peres in the polls that May. Clinton was more effective in ensnaring a peace-shy prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu with the Wye River Memorandum - paving the way to Netanyahu's downfall and Ehud Barak's May 1999 election victory. Before that, president George H.W. Bush tripped up Yitzhak Shamir on the issue of settlements, assisting Yitzhak Rabin in Israel's 1992 vote.

A new president, however, is unlikely to dip his hand in the shark-infested waters of Israeli politics, certainly not on Day 1, especially since the possible impact would be hard to predict. The Obama team would be best advised to simply remind Israelis of its own standpoint: a commitment to two states and to advancing the peace process "from the minute I'm sworn into office" (Obama in Amman, July 2008). To forget this pledge until after February 10 would in itself be an intervention of sorts, and an unwelcome one. Will Kadima, Labor or Meretz be able to ride the wave of Obama expectations? That will be for them to attempt and for the voters to decide.

Another upcoming Middle East election the new American president will have to navigate is in Iran, where presidential polls are scheduled for June 2009. The tricky balancing act here will be, on the one hand, not to lose time testing direct engagement with Iran, an Obama election pledge, while, at the same time, doing nothing that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad could use to strengthen his own re-election efforts. Paradoxically, a less threatening, more open-for-business tone from the U.S. may be the best way to undermine Ahmadinejad. Direct talks with Ahmadinejad are very unlikely to feature on the immediate Obama to-do list, and would almost certainly be ill advised. In any event, he is not the key address for diplomatic approaches. That would more likely be supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei. Expect discreet feelers and exploratory contacts with key Khamenei confidants, such as Ali Akbar Velayati and Ali Larijani, and expect not to know that they are taking place.

Israel's best posture on this is surely to avoid any public disagreement with the U.S. on Iran, to ensure that Israel has input into the agenda for talks, and to give American-Iranian negotiations a real chance, as the best option for addressing our concerns.

For Syria, a two-year waiting game ends on Inauguration Day. President Bashar al-Assad apparently decided some time ago that his best bet was to wait out the implacable opposition of French president Jacques Chirac and American president Bush. Syria has recently prepared for this day, for instance by relaunching peace talks with Israel via Turkish mediation, by assuming a constructive role regarding Lebanon, and by moving closer to Europe, most notably to Chirac's successor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

In some senses, Syria is seen as low-hanging fruit for a U.S. re-engagement that would reshuffle Middle East alliances in its favor. After all, Syria is a relevant player when it comes to Iraq, Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinian arena. A reorientation of Syria's policies will not take place overnight or following a brief diplomatic flirtation. But a new approach to U.S.-Syria bilateral relations, with reasonably calibrated benchmarks and including American support for Israeli-Syrian talks, stands a good chance of success. Look out for early indications of that change.

Finally, how to deal with Palestinian internal politics? One of the more devastating legacies of the Bush years was the failure to constructively navigate the Palestinian transition away from the strongman rule of Yasser Arafat and the single-party domination of Fatah. A stable Palestine and sustainable peace and security for Palestinians and Israelis cannot be built on a divided Palestinian house. The American position has been one of encouraging Palestinian division. That needs to change urgently, not by an Obama administration directly engaging Hamas, but by it discreetly signaling an end to the American veto on Palestinian national reconciliation along lines similar to the Saudi-brokered Mecca deal of February 2007. Given the stop-start Palestinian talks now being brokered by Egypt, there might be some urgency to the American policy re-think on this issue - the peace process is deeply flawed in its absence.

Of course, Iraq will loom largest when president-elect Obama turns his attention to the Middle East - and therein lies the core challenge: Will the next administration, unlike its predecessor, appreciate both the extent and the nature of the interconnectivity between the region's varied crises? The signs at least are encouraging.

Daniel Levy, a senior fellow at the New America and Century Foundations, was previously an adviser in the Israeli Prime Minister's Office, and the lead Israeli drafter of the Geneva Initiative.