Is the U.S. Pursuing the Wrong Mideast Peace Process?

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Hussein Malla / AP

Lebanese soldiers armed with American-made M-16 rifles

The recent skirmish on the Israel-Lebanon border has amplified fears that the Middle East could be on the brink of another war. So the fact that U.S. special envoy Senator George Mitchell arrived in Israel this week hoping to restart peace talks ought to offer some reassurance. But it doesn't. The reason: President Obama's peace process doesn't involve those who could clash with the Israelis this summer. Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, whom Mitchell will cajole to talk directly with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is not at war with Israel and will remain on the sidelines if new hostilities break out, just as he did during last year's Gaza war.

The forces on the front lines of the gathering storm — Hamas in Gaza, Hizballah in Lebanon, and Syria — are allied with Iran, and the Obama Administration is maintaining its predecessor's policy of trying to diplomatically isolate the self-styled "axis of resistance." Some limited overtures have been made to Damascus, largely in the hope of separating Syria from Iran. But absent any move to end Israel's occupation of Syrian territory on the Golan Heights, those will come to naught. The Administration has also made limited overtures to engage Iran on the nuclear issue, using Iran's defiance to strengthen the case Washington makes to less sanguine partners that Iran should be isolated. But it has precious few channels to the relevant leadership should hostilities break out along Israel's northern border or in Gaza. On both of those fronts, an uneasy calm is maintained not by any agreements but by each side's awareness of the damage they could suffer, both physical and political, in a new confrontation. Still, in both cases, the antagonists are operating on the assumption that a new shooting war is inevitable at some point.

The Bush Administration's diplomatic boycott of the resistance camp failed to stem its rising influence, cemented the alliance of its component parts, and left Washington and its Western allies with precious little access to important decisionmakers. That may not have bothered the Bush Administration much, because it imagined the region as locked in a fight to the finish between radicals and moderates — a grand alliance of whom would join with Israel and the U.S. to vanquish Iran and its allies. Stability was not the Bush Administration's priority. When anxious Europeans pressed Washington to help end the disastrous 2006 Israeli war against Hizballah in Lebanon, then Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously responded that she had "no interest in a return to the status quo ante." But, of course, that's largely what resulted, because the projection of force by the U.S. and Israel in the region has failed to eliminate the radicals.

Turkey was the most important U.S. ally to break decisively with the Bush Administration's approach to the region, building its own bridges to the resistance camp in the belief that it couldn't be wished or blown away and that the region couldn't be stabilized without accommodating its interests. Turkey's approach was pilloried by some in the West and Israel as aligning with Iran. But British Prime Minister David Cameron, following talks in Washington, recently visited Ankara and sought to ingratiate himself with the Turkish leadership by referring to Gaza as a "prison camp" — as Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has done — an apparent attempt to enlist Turkey's support in mediating the region's conflicts. Turkey's good offices with the radicals, combined with its long-standing, if somewhat frayed, security alliance with Israel, may now be a vital channel of communication for avoiding new wars in the region.

Of course, pursuing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, as the Obama Administration is doing by urging direct talks between Abbas and Netanyahu, needn't work at cross purposes with a broader push to stabilize the Middle East. But it could.

The Bush Administration eventually renewed Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as an element of its strategy to confront Iran, seeing a Mideast peace process as vital to provide political cover for Arab regimes to ally with Israel and the U.S. against Tehran. That was the logic behind the Annapolis conference and subsequent discussions between Abbas and then Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert. The process went nowhere, of course. But even if Olmert and Abbas had managed to agree on the contours of a Palestinian state (they didn't), it was clear that any process that excluded Hamas — which had demonstrated in a democratic election that it spoke for as much as half the Palestinian population — was unlikely to gain much traction. And a peace process conceived of as a means to weaken and isolate Hamas and its allies obviously gives them an overwhelming incentive to ensure its failure, which is well within their means.

Still, the Obama Administration maintains the Bush policies of confining its diplomatic engagement largely to friends rather than adversaries. Once again, the argument is being made in Washington debates that pressing forward the Israeli-Palestinian peace process is a key condition for a successful effort to isolate Iran. But there's no apparent reason to expect that Obama will succeed where Bush failed.

On Aug. 6, a major annual study of public opinion in six Arab countries by University of Maryland professor Shibley Telhami was released. Its latest findings hold some grim tidings for the White House. Not only has the proportion of respondents holding negative views of Obama almost tripled (to 63%) since his Cairo outreach speech last year, but the notion that the Arab world feels threatened by the idea of Iran's acquiring a nuclear weapon seems questionable. Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad was found to be the third most popular world leader, at 12% (after Erdogan at 20% and Venezuela's Hugo Chávez at 13%; Obama didn't make the top 20). And the study found that an overwhelming 77% of respondents believed Tehran had a right to its nuclear program — an alarming 57% even believed a nuclear-armed Iran would be better for the Middle East.

Plainly, there's a disconnect between Arab public opinion and the Obama Administration's approach to dealing with the region. If the goal is stabilizing the region and preventing war, it may be time for Obama to heed the advice of late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin. When challenged on why he was dealing with Israel's mortal foe, Yasser Arafat, Rabin answered, "We make peace with our enemies, not with our friends."