Richard Beeston
The Times
February 25, 2009 - 1:00am

He has dispatched envoys, offered his hand in friendship to old enemies and even raised the matter last night in his first big speech to Congress on the state of the nation. But no matter how hard Barack Obama tries, the Middle East is proving even more challenging a problem than he could have reasonably expected.

In the space of a few days the mess he inherited from George Bush has got a lot messier.

Take Israel. After elections this month that many in the West hoped would lead to a centrist coalition led by Tzipi Livni, the Kadima Party leader, the new Government will now be formed by the man who came second.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, will likely head the most right-wing coalition for two decades. To make matters worse, it will have a tiny five-seat majority in the Knesset, leaving it weak and unstable as well as ideologically incompatible with a new peace process.
On the Palestinian, side little has progressed since the bloody battle for Gaza in January. Hamas remains firmly in charge of the destroyed coastal strip, while the Palestinian Authority under its President, Mahmoud Abbas, looks weaker than ever.

While Palestinian-Israeli dialogue is unlikely to produce any movement for some time, there had been hopes of progress between Israel and its long-time enemy Syria.

Here the Americans can play a hugely positive role by re-engaging with Damascus after a four-year freeze in relations. Already there are signs of progress. Imad Mustafa, the Syrian Ambassador to Washington has been invited to a rare meeting at the State Department with a senior US official. The next step could be the reappointment of a US Ambassador to Damascus.

There are problems, however. Syria has not shown any inclination to halt its support for militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Worse, the United Nations is expected soon to press ahead with a trial into the murder of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, whose assassination many blame on the Syrian regime. Should these allegations come to light in open court, ties with Damascus could be put back in the deep freeze.

Finally there is America’s relationship with Iran, probably the key to the future stability in the entire region. Both President Obama and his Iranian counterpart, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have raised the prospects of resuming direct dialogue 30 years after the two states became sworn enemies.

Certainly both countries have many common interests, like seeing peace return to Iraq and Afghanistan. They are both dedicated to the fight against militant Sunni Muslim ideology espoused by al-Qaeda and the Taleban.

But forging a real relationship — for instance by reopening direct diplomatic contacts — is still fraught with problems. In spite of the West’s protestations, Iran is pressing ahead with its controversial nuclear programme. It has now enriched enough uranium to build one nuclear warhead and is expected to bring its Russian-build Bushehr nuclear power station online this year.

To further complicate matters Mr Ahmadinejad, an outspoken hardliner who regularly threatens Israel, is seeking re-election in June. Could an ill-timed Obama charm offensive inadvertently help his chances of winning?

It is becoming clear that if Mr Obama intends to do what he says he wants to do in the Middle East, he may have to shoulder some of the diplomatic heavy lifting himself. Assigning envoys and despatching Hillary Clinton, the US Secretary of State, to the region next week is fine. But the scale of the problems require his personal intervention -- something America’s all-consuming economic crisis may not allow.

Still, if it is any consolation, things could be worse. Violence could re-ignite in Iraq, the only bright spot on Mr Obama’s horizon. In the worst-case scenario, Israel could attack Iran’s nuclear facilities. For now, Mr Obama can take some comfort that no matter how bleak the Middle East may look, at least it is not engulfed in another war.


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