Michael Jansen
The Jordan Times (Opinion)
February 26, 2009 - 1:00am

The Obama administration seems to be following a two-track policy on this region, starting with Syria and the Palestinians. On the declaratory track, US spokesmen and officials reiterate the timeworn mantras adopted by the Bush administration, conditioning renewal of relations on “a change in behaviour” in Damascus.

Senator Benjamin Cardin, who took part in a five-member congressional delegation that visited the Syrian capital, stated, arrogantly: “We came here to see if Syria is ready to move forward and we will be watching its actions over the next weeks and months.”

To US legislators like Cardin, “moving forward” means that Damascus must proceed down a one-way street by cutting ties to Iran, Hizbollah and the Palestinian resistance; going along with US policies in Iraq; and refraining from interference in Lebanon’s internal affairs.

Syria is not prepared to enter this street because this would mean acting against what it sees as its own interests or as currying favour with the US, regarded by many Arabs as their enemy because of its support for Israel. This being the case, Damascus suggests that the US and its Western allies need to reconsider their “behaviour”.

On the action track, the Obama administration seems to be doing just this by, at the very least, moderating its predecessor’s drive to dictate the behaviour of others. Following talks last weekend with President Bashar Assad in Damascus, Senator John Kerry, chairman of the influential Foreign Relations Committee and former Democratic Party presidential candidate, said that Syria is prepared to help in the formation of a Palestinian unity government. This statement signalled two important changes in Washington, as well as a change in Damascus. Thus, the Obama administration is changing the unprofitable policy of George W. Bush who opposed a Palestinian unity government and wanted nothing to do with Damascus unless Syria capitulated to US conditions.

Kerry explained why these changes are being made: “If you achieve [a Palestinian unity government], then you have made a major step forward not only in dealing with the problems of Gaza but [also] in terms of how you reignite discussions for a two-state solution” of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Syria seems to agree with this assessment and may even advise Hamas leaders based in Damascus to go along with reconciliation and a unity government. By changing its behaviour, Washington might actually encourage Damascus to do likewise, to the benefit of both, as well as that of the Palestinians and the region.

Kerry also said that while disagreements remain on some issues, there is “the possibility of real cooperation on a number of different issues beginning immediately, beginning soon”.

Although he did not spell out the issues or when this “cooperation” will take place, his words make it clear that Syrian refusal to implement US demands on Iran, Hizbollah, Hamas, Iraq and Lebanon need not block cooperation on issues of common interest to the two sides.

Since Kerry consulted with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ahead of his regional tour, his words seem to herald what might be called “new thinking” in Washington. It seems to have dawned on someone in the new administration that until a Palestinian unity government is created, a long-term truce between Hamas and Israel cannot be achieved, Israel’s blockade of Gaza cannot be lifted and Gaza’s reconstruction cannot take place.

Last week, George Mitchell, the Obama administration’s special envoy to the region, also said that Washington wished to see the emergence of a Fateh-Hamas unity government. Mitchell, a former senator and Northern Ireland peace broker, gave his backing to Egyptian efforts to bring about Palestinian reconciliation and labelled Palestinian division as an obstacle to reinvigorating the moribund peace process. Mitchell also said he plans to take up residence in Jerusalem with the aim of pursuing negotiations between the Palestinians and Israel. This shows that the Obama administration is serious about making peace, unlike Bush who refused to engage in brokering a deal until the last year of his eight-year term in office and did very little after relaunching Palestinian-Israeli negotiations in November 2007.

Clinton is due in Israel and the West Bank next week. She may be able to say or do very little, given the fact that Israel is in the throes of forming a coalition led by right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu. He has no intention of taking part in negotiations leading to the establishment of a Palestinian state and opposes the return of the Golan Heights to Syria, its price for peace with Israel. On a positive note, ahead of Clinton’s visit, the US announced it will provide $900 million in funding for Gaza’s reconstruction - to add to the $1.25 billion pledged by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.

It is clear that the new administration is still trying to feel its way, behaviour-wise. On Monday, it was announced that Dennis Ross was appointed Clinton’s adviser on the Gulf, including Iran, and southwest Asia. Deeply involved in Palestinian-Israeli negotiations during the administration of Bill Clinton, Ross was accused by a colleague of acting as Israel’s advocate by tilting too heavily in its favour. Since leaving the State Department, Ross has worked at the Washington Institute of Near East Policy, a think tank founded by the American Israeli Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the main arm of the pro-Israel lobby, and as chairman of the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute, an organisation established in Jerusalem by the Jewish Agency. He could, according to a report from the Institute for Research, face legal charges for failing to register as a foreign agent due to his connection with a Jewish Agency organ. There is concern among some quarters that if he takes up this post, he will advise Clinton to adopt Israel’s hawkish line on Iran’s nuclear programme and obstruct dialogue between the administration and Tehran.

The Ross appointment seems to have been balanced by the choice of Chas Freeman, former ambassador to Saudi Arabia and outspoken critic of Israel, to head the National Intelligence Council, the US government’s centre for mid-term and long-term strategic thinking. It produces often-controversial National Intelligence Estimates and reports to the director of National Intelligence, currently General James Jones. Freeman has been president for the past 12 years of the Middle East Policy Council, a group which lobbies for the Arab world and publishes a quarterly journal called Middle East Policy. This journal carried the highly controversial article “The Israel Lobby and US Foreign Policy” by Stephen Walt and John Mearsheimer.

Steve Rosen, a former AIPAC staff member indicted for spying for Israel, is leading the campaign to block Freeman’s appointment.

But there could be a trade-off for Ross. In an article reporting the Ross appointment, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency asked about the elevation of Freeman asked: “Will this drown out the noise surrounding the reported appointment of Freeman as chairman of the National Intelligence Council?”

If Freeman takes up his post, in spite of the disapproval of powerful pro-Israel interests, and Ross his, although he could encounter legal problems as a foreign agent, this trade-off could be a positive development. In previous administrations, the top posts were simply filled with pro-Israel activists and no questions were asked.


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