As President Obama made abundantly clear in his end-of-year press conference — his body language even more eloquently than his actual language — it’s a good year to see the end of.
And a year that most inhabitants of the Middle East are surely glad to see end, though 2014 isn’t likely to turn out any better for most of them.
That perennial problem, the Israeli-Palestinian one, is no closer to resolution despite the efforts of Secretary of State Kerry. The bad news, from Kerry’s perspective, is the way he pushed himself, Don Quixote-style, into the issue. (As to exactly why he thought he could succeed when everyone else has failed is more a psychological question than a strategic one.)
With all that’s going on in the Arab World — not just the Syrian civil war, but the increasing radicalization of Sunni Arabs and the concomitant deepening split between them and their Shiite cousins — the Israelis are, not surprisingly, worried about what the future will bring just beyond their borders. And the Arab focus, also not surprisingly, has turned inward.
The Palestinians these days are pretty much on their own. The American Studies Association, a group of about 5000 scholars, wants to help: it just voted for a boycott of academic institutions in Israel. The Washington Post attacked the vote as “narrow-minded,” citing, somewhat irrelevantly, humans rights infractions by Russia and China. As is pro forma with those supporting Israel when discussing its treatment of Palestinians, the Post referred to Israel’s “lively and durable democracy,” adding — with more unintentional irony? — that the more helpful approach would be for the Association to “engage deeply with Israelis and Palestinians, perhaps with scholarly conferences and exchanges.”
Israel’s apartheid-like settlement policies, accelerated under Prime Minister Netanyahu, will increasingly draw condemnation from abroad. And despite the Post’s preference for conferences and exchanges, international reaction will eventually have an impact on the Israeli government. But when that time comes, dismantling the settlements and drawing borders for a viable Palestinian state may be a political impossibility for any Israeli government, however well-intentioned. When that time comes is of course anybody’s guess, but Kerry will be long gone.
The good news for Kerry, and everyone else — except the world’s newest odd-couple, Saudi Arabia and Israel — is the interim Iran nuclear deal he helped create, one not even on the radar when he took the job. He lucked into what is conceivably the most positive development in the Middle East in years after Iran’s Supreme Leader let the pragmatic Rouhani run for president. Kerry should drop Jerusalem from his itinerary these days: “Call me, Mr. Prime Minister, when you’ve got a proposal I can actually sell to the Palestinians, but otherwise, my plate is full.”
And surely it is: with the Geneva II talks on Syria scheduled to begin January 22, coordinating the outcome with Russia’s Putin — a leader who’s had a considerably better year than his American counterpart — will be Kerry’s top priority for the next month. A few weeks back, I suggested in an op-ed piece for a local newspaper that the least bad deal for Syria these days, in terms of American interests, was an arrangement that kept President Assad and his Alawites in power for an interim period while a more broad-based coalition emerged under joint US-Russian auspices. In Sunday’s NYTimes, Ryan Crocker, the most knowledgeable US diplomat on the entire Middle East — he’s been ambassador to Syria, Iraq, and Lebanon as well as Pakistan and Afghanistan — proposed a similar option: “It is time to consider a future for Syria without Bashar al-Assad’s ouster,” he wrote, asking rhetorically if the US “really wants the alternative — a major country in the heart of the Arab world in the hands of Al-Qaeda?”
For some reason, the White House so far is rebuffing UN envoy Lakhdar Ibrahim’s belief that Iran attend the Geneva talks, though they are clearly a major player in the Syrian civil war, and, of course, are as opposed to a Syrian future governed by Al-Qaeda as we are. Quite apart from the reality of Iranian involvement in Syria, including them in the talks, if handled adroitly, might give the moderate Iranian President Rouhani a useful boost in his on-going struggle against the Revolutionary Guard and other hard-liners. And, clearly, acknowledging to Rouhani Iran’s strategic interest in Syria — and thus rewarding his relative moderation and perhaps co-opting him a little — is more sensible than purposely cutting Iran out and encouraging it to play spoiler.
The Saudis don’t like the Iranians — it’s bad enough that they’re Shiites, they’re also much bigger, more powerful and a potentially much more important regional player. If a nuclear deal is signed, Iran would eventually eclipse what’s left of Saudi influence in Washington. The Israelis like Iran even less, and, religion aside, for much the same reasons. Once a nuclear deal is reached — which, on the surface, one would have expected Israel to embrace — Iran would become an accepted and formidable player in the region, and unlike Iran under the Shah, it would lend a new and effective voice against both Israel’s occupation policies as well as its nuclear monopoly.
What’s hardly surprising now, as real progress in US-Iranian relations seems possible, is how AIPAC, the most powerful Israel lobby, has wound into high gear to stop it, even if war is the likely alternative.
And what’s even less surprising — but more depressing — is how successful AIPAC has been. It has managed to get 26 senators, split evenly between Republicans and Democrats — a nice touch, you’ve got to hand it to AIPAC — to introduce a bill which would threaten Iran with severe new sanctions in the event no deal resulted from the nuclear negotiations. And the deal the bill demands, the total disarmament of Iran’s nuclear program, follows precisely the Israeli government line. Forcing Iran, or any other country for that matter, to negotiate with a gun to its head is to scuttle negotiations before the opening statements have been exchanged. Worse, the Senate bill states that in the event Israel were to launch an attack against Iran, the US Congress should “authorize the use of military force” to support Israel. The 26 senators are proposing that we obligate ourselves to finish a war someone else starts.
Encouragingly, the new pro-Israel and, as their slogan adds, “pro-peace” lobby, J Street, has made clear its opposition to the Senate bill.
And President Obama, showing more backbone than usual, has also made clear he will veto such a bill should it be approved by Congress: “If we’re serious about negotiations, we’ve got to create an atmosphere in which Iran is willing to move in ways that are uncomfortable for them and contrary to their ideology and rhetoric and their instincts and suspicions of us. And we don’t help get them to a position where we can actually resolve this by engaging in this kind of action.”
One hopes that Obama won’t have to veto this bill; one hopes that Congress will never pass it. One hopes that a lobby that supports a foreign country is not so powerful that it can get Congress to undermine the US national interest.
Graduating from Yale in 1964, Mac Deford joined the Foreign Service the following year, spending three years in Vietnam. He studied Arabic in Beirut, after which he was assigned to the embassy in Jidda, Saudi Arabia. He was posted to Washington, New York, and Amman, Jordan before joining Merrill Lynch International in 1978. He spent much of a nearly two-decade career with Merrill in the Far East, retiring in 1997 to Maine. He has written a weekly foreign policy column for the local newspaper since 2001. He has served on a number of non-profit boards, including International College in Beirut, the newly-established graduate School for Policy and International Affairs at the the University of Maine and the Neiman Fellows for Journalism at Harvard.