Obama’s visit to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza
So much for the United States "leading from behind" in the Middle East.
Secretary of State John Kerry had already made clear that he, unlike his predecessor, would give Middle East diplomacy his personal priority and announced a trip to the region as early as this month.
That seemed news enough, but then Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen was one of the first to report this week that President Barack Obama himself would travel to Israel, the West Bank and Jordan, probably in late March.
Ben Caspit reported from Jerusalem that word of Obama’s trip left many Israelis “reeling.” The expectation was that Obama’s first trip to Israel as president would be as guest of honor at Israeli President Shimon Peres’ “President’s Conference” in June. Caspit writes that Obama’s visit in March might offer a “glimmer of optimism,” as there appears to be motion and activity, although this optimism should probably be held in check.
Akiva Eldar, also writing from Israel, suggests that the timing of the announcement of Obama’s visit was meant to influence the formation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new coalition government, so that Netanyahu understands that the peace process be a priority in Obama’s second term.
U.S. diplomacy with Iran
Obama’s trip to the Middle East takes place in the context of other U.S. diplomatic initiatives in the region, especially with Iran.
Here again, Al-Monitor’s Laura Rozen was one of the first journalists to break the news that the next round of talks between Iran and the “P5+1” over Iran’s nuclear program would be held in Al Maty, Kazakhstan, on Feb. 26.
The forthcoming talks take place as the United States has re-stated its willingness to begin bilateral negotiations with Iran.
In response to a question about when the U.S. would hold direct talks with Iran at the Munich Security Conference on Feb. 2, Vice President Joseph Biden said: “When the Iranian leadership, Supreme Leader, is serious. We have made it clear at the outset that we would not — we would be prepared to meet bilaterally with the Iranian leadership. We would not make it a secret that we were doing that. We would let our partners know if that occasion presented itself. That offer stands, but it must be real and tangible, and there has to be an agenda that they’re prepared to speak to. We are not just prepared to do it for the exercise.”
Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, seemed to nix the idea of a diplomatic breakthrough with Iran when he said on February 7, in response to Biden, that “You take up arms against the nation of Iran and say: 'negotiate or we fire.' But you should know that pressure and negotiations are not compatible and our nation will not be intimidated by these actions."
The United States did not take Khamenei’s response as the final word. Secretary of State Kerry followed Khamenei’s announcement with what Laura Rozen described as a ‘heartfelt plea’ when Kerry said on February 8: “And so my plea to the Iranians … is a clear statement … We are prepared to let diplomacy be the victor in this confrontation over their nuclear program.”
Al-Monitor’s Iran Pulse had also reported that Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi had a "positive reaction" to Kerry’s appointment.
Khamenei’s response, while disappointing, should not be considered the final word. The test of diplomacy is diplomacy itself, and the Al Maty meeting is a good step, although the P5+1 forum is likely nothing more than a weigh station, rather than the setting itself, for any diplomatic breakthrough, as previously reported in this column. The nuclear negotiations cannot be detached from the wider regional context, including and especially Syria, and sooner rather than later Syria must also be the subject of US-Iran talks.
Obama administration rejects military solution in Syria
Geoffrey Aronson wrote on the recognition within the Obama administration of the perils of pursuing a pursuing a military solution in Syria and the renewed focus on support for a political solution to the Syrian crisis.
“Washington remains as committed as ever to a democratic transition that results in Assad's departure, but it has now opened the door in support of negotiations with all parties to achieve it” Aronson writes. “In the past, the suggestion that Assad was prepared to lose an election in 2014 could not be made in polite company. No longer. This change does not insure success, but at the very least it helps to establish a formidable and broad-based diplomatic counterweight to the killing.”
Aronson’s article was posted just two days before a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing on Feb. 8, where Defense Secretary Leon Panetta and Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified that President Obama had nixed a proposal to arm Syrian rebels last summer.
The Wall Street Journal reported: “The White House stalled the proposal because of lingering questions about which rebels could be trusted with the arms, whether the transfers would make a difference in the campaign to remove Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad and whether the weapons would add to the suffering, the U.S. officials said. A U.S. official cited the findings of a CIA team of analysts, which cast doubt on the impact of arming the rebels on the conflict.”
In a similar vein, Chuck Hagel, Obama’s nominee to be defense secretary, in response to questions from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., over whether to provide arms to the Syrian rebels and establish a no-fly zone, replied: “Well, I don't think anyone questions the terrible tragedy that is occurring there every day. It's a matter of how best do we work our way through this so that we can stop it, does — to begin with. And then what comes next? I think the president was pretty clear on this.”
The Obama administration for now seems to have rejected the false promise of a military victory by the rebels over the Syrian government and has instead given priority to an approach to the Syrian crisis that would end the killing sooner rather than later and in the context of a negotiated political solution.
As we reported in this column last week, the emphasis for now should be to support the courageous effort of Moaz al-Khatib, head of the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces, to consider direct engagement with Damascus, an initiative which has the support of the United States, Russia and Iran, and which might offer the slim, but only, glimmer of hope at this time to end the Syrian tragedy.