Roger Cohen
The New York Times (Opinion)
January 11, 2009 - 1:00am

The Obama team is tight with information, but I’ve got the scoop on the senior advisers he’s gathered to push a new Middle East policy as the Gaza war rages: Shibley Telhami, Vali Nasr, Fawaz Gerges, Fouad Moughrabi and James Zogby.

This group of distinguished Arab-American and Iranian-American scholars, with wide regional experience, is intended to signal a U.S. willingness to think anew about the Middle East, with greater cultural sensitivity to both sides, and a keen eye on whether uncritical support for Israel has been helpful.

O.K., forget the above, I’ve let my imagination run away with me. Barack Obama has no plans for this line-up on the Israeli-Palestinian problem and Iran.

In fact, the people likely to play significant roles on the Middle East in the Obama Administration read rather differently.

They include Dennis Ross (the veteran Clinton administration Mideast peace envoy who may now extend his brief to Iran); James Steinberg (as deputy secretary of state); Dan Kurtzer (the former U.S. ambassador to Israel); Dan Shapiro (a longtime aide to Obama); and Martin Indyk (another former ambassador to Israel who is close to the incoming secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.)

Now, I have nothing against smart, driven, liberal, Jewish (or half-Jewish) males; I’ve looked in the mirror. I know or have talked to all these guys, except Shapiro. They’re knowledgeable, broad-minded and determined. Still, on the diversity front they fall short. On the change-you-can-believe-in front, they also leave something to be desired.

In an adulatory piece in Newsweek, Michael Hirsh wrote: “Ross’s previous experience as the indefatigable point man during the failed Oslo process, as well as the main negotiator with Syria, make him uniquely suited for a major renewal of U.S. policy on nearly every front.”

Really? I wonder about the capacity for “major renewal” of someone who has failed for so long.

“Do people in the region take note when Arab-Americans are not represented? Sure they do,” said Zogby, the president of the Arab American Institute in Washington. “A message gets sent.”

It’s important for Obama to get his message right from day one. With the Al Jazeera and Al Arabiya networks broadcasting 24-7 images of the carnage in Gaza, where there are more than 800 dead, mobilization in the Arab world is intense. Rage against Israel, and behind it America, bodes ill.

Change is needed, and not just in the intensity of U.S. diplomatic involvement with Israel-Palestine. Some fundamental questions must be asked.

Does regarding the Middle East almost exclusively through the prism of the war on terror make sense? Does turning a blind eye to the Israeli settlements in the West Bank that frustrate a two-state solution, and the Israeli blockade of Gaza that radicalizes its population, not undermine U.S. interest in bolstering moderate Palestinian sentiment?

Should policy not be directed toward reconciling a Palestinian movement now split between Fatah and Hamas, without which no final-status peace will be possible? Beyond their terrorist wings, in their broad grass-roots political movements, what elements of Hamas and Hezbollah can be coaxed toward the mainstream?

Do we understand the increasingly sophisticated Middle East of Al Jazeera where, as Telhami, a professor at the University of Maryland, put it to me, “People are not dumb and our credibility is at a historic near-zero?”

Asking these questions does not alter America’s commitment to Israel’s security within its pre-1967 borders, which is and should be unwavering. It does not change the unacceptability of Hamas rockets or the fact the Hamas Charter is vile. But it would signal that the damaging Bush-era consensus that Israel can do no wrong is to be challenged.

I don’t feel encouraged — not by the putative Ross-redux team, nor by the nonbinding resolutions passed last week in the Senate and the House of Representatives. The former offered “unwavering commitment” to Israel. The latter recognized “Israel’s right to defend itself against attacks from Gaza.” Neither criticized Israel.

It seems that among liberal democracies, it is only in the U.S .Congress that a defense against terror that results in the slaying of hundreds of Palestinian children is not cause for agonized soul-searching. In my view, such Israeli “defense” has crossed the line.

“We are all opposed to terrorism,” Telhami said. “But how does that enlighten you about how to move forward?”

Enlightenment will require a fresher, broader Mideast team than Obama is contemplating. As noted in “Negotiating Arab-Israeli Peace: American Leadership in the Middle East,” a fine evaluation of U.S. diplomacy by Kurtzer and Scott Lasensky, the lack of expertise on Islam and an Arab perspective was costly at Camp David. At one point, the State Department’s top Arabic translator had to be drafted because “the lack of cross-cultural negotiating skills was so acute.”

Obama should take note, name an Arab-American and an Iranian-American to prominent roles, and beware of a team that takes him — and the region — back to the future.

He said during the campaign that “an unwavering pro-Likud approach to Israel” can’t be “the measure of our friendship with Israel.” Those were words. Now, with Gaza blood flowing, come deeds.


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