The advent of the Obama Administration presents new opportunities for talks with Iran and negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians. The policies and personalities that will shape the Obama Administration's approach to achieving peace in the Middle East are being determined now. Some reports indicate that former officials like Dennis Ross, who directed failed policies in the past, are angling for top positions. Allowing such officials to direct U.S. policy could compromise U.S. efforts and send a signal to the region that U.S. policy is not really going to change from the failed policies of the past. A recent report suggests that campaigns by women's groups have helped remove Larry Summers from the short list for Treasury Secretary. A similar campaign by folks concerned about peace in the Middle East could help remove Dennis Ross from short lists for top positions supervising our diplomacy in the Middle East.
Obama has proposed to make an early and sustained push to support peace between Israel and the Palestinians, and has pledged to talk to Iran without preconditions. A sustained push by the United States for Israeli-Palestinian peace would force on to the table fundamental issues that must be resolved, like Israeli withdrawal from the West Bank. Even Israeli Prime Minister Olmert said recently that Israel must withdraw from nearly all the West Bank as well as East Jerusalem to attain peace with the Palestinians. And an early push for talks with Iran could help establish security in Iraq and Afghanistan.
But we can't assume that this is the direction that U.S. policy will move.
A November 3rd article in the New York Times noted that a report from the "Bipartisan Policy Center" explores blockading Iran's gasoline imports - an act of war - and says that "a military strike is a feasible option." The article notes that the report's authors include Dennis Ross, a "top Mideast adviser to Obama." Ross served in the first Bush Administration as well as the Clinton Administration, where he played a leading role in U.S. negotiations with the Israelis and Palestinians.
Daniel Kurtzer, also an Obama adviser, has written that American and Arab negotiators saw Ross as biased and not "an honest broker." One Arab negotiator said, "The perception always was that Dennis [Ross] started from the Israeli bottom line, that he listened to what Israel wanted and then tried to sell it to the Arabs." Aaron David Miller, who also served on the U.S. team, has written that under Clinton U.S. negotiators acted as "Israel's lawyer," rather than focusing on what would enable both sides to reach agreement.
The Jewish Chronicle reports that Palestinian leaders are optimistic about Obama, but they are looking for "new faces" on the U.S. side. Walid Awad, spokesman for the Fatah Central Media Commission, called on Obama to immediately devote his attention to Israeli-Palestinian diplomacy when he takes office in January. "Bush did not deal with the conflict until it was too late and he did not pressure Israel enough to bring about a solution," Awad said. He voiced concern about reports Obama may appoint Dennis Ross to a senior foreign policy position. "He's never been fair with the Palestinians so bringing him back into the fold would be counter-productive. Obama has to bring in new faces."
As a former Clinton official told Time, if President-elect Obama wants U.S. efforts to help achieve peace in the Middle East to succeed, he must break not only with the policies of President Bush, but also with the policies of President Clinton. Ask President-elect Obama to turn a new page.