Musings on Obama’s diplomatic team and the Middle East

Musings on Obama’s diplomatic team and the Middle East

JERUSALEM — Below the political surface here one can detect apprehension and worry about President-elect Barack Obama’s intention to engage the Islamic Republic of Iran in dialogue.
The overriding fear is that Israel may have to pay the price — that the United States may tolerate Iran’s nuclear ambitions and rule out the military options that could be executed by American or Israeli air forces.
President Mohammed Ahmadinejad’s rhetoric about destroying the Jewish state and rejecting the Jews’ right to self-determination in any part of pre-1948 Palestine is taken very seriously by most Israelis be they government leaders or ordinary citizens. And the means the Teheran regime presumably would use to this end are believed to be medium-range missiles with nuclear warheads or nuclear bombs.
There also is uncertainty bordering on suspicion that Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton may exert excessive and unwarranted pressure to bring a rump Palestinian state into being. One highly suspected motive would be to enhance her reputation in the international arena and thereby shore up her future presidential aspirations.
This line of thought is bolstered by the fact that she publicly advocated Palestinian statehood more than a decade ago when this concept was generally taboo in Israel and unpopular in the United States. Today, most Israelis are reconciled to the theoretical inevitability of President Bush’s “dream” of two states living side by side in peace.
The president-elect and Sen. Clinton already have a substantial American involvement in the Palestinian Authority on the basis of which they can pursue an even more supportive policy than that of President Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
U.S. military advisers have been training the Palestinian police and supervising their deployment in Jenin, Hebron and elsewhere in the West Bank. Generous financial aid has been furnished by the Bush administration to upgrade the region’s neglected if not dilapidated infrastructure. New equipment has been provided to upgrade and expand the distribution of fresh water to Palestinian homes, factories and farms, academic scholarships have been allocated to West Bank and Gaza Strip students and easy access to the White House has been granted to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.
The State Department evidently envisions the projected Palestinian state as a pivotal element in a pro-American diplomatic mechanism that not only would include Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Israel — all strategically contiguous states — but also tempt Syria to break away from Iran and join up with Lebanon in its tow.
This not only would isolate the Teheran regime, but also would create a powerful barrier to Russian influence in this part of the Middle East.
Several of the most influential experts in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute who are expected to be among President-elect Obama’s key advisers — Dennis Ross, Martin Indyk and Daniel Kerzer — share a common belief that Israel’s salvation and the accomplishment of American objectives lie in maximal territorial concessions by Israel, including the dismantling and removal of as many Jewish settlements as possible from the West Bank.
However, these notions are not deemed suitable for public discourse and debate for the time being.
Israel’s future policymakers are intent on establishing the best-possible relations with the incoming Obama administration. They evidently believe it would be unwise to pass premature judgment on its diplomatic game plan.
Luckily for them, the gala presidential inauguration will precede the Israeli national election by nearly three weeks (Jan. 20 and Feb. 10 respectively) and they will gain another few days or weeks until the post-election bargaining on a new coalition government is completed.
By that time, Likud Party leader Benjamin Netanyahu or Kadima leader Tzipi Livni — the two frontrunners to be the next Israeli prime minister — may be able to determine whether the “change” heralded by Obama will affect the Middle East and whether the “new politics” he advocated will really make a difference.

(Jay Bushinsky, an Israel-based political columnist, can be reached at