Experts Urge Obama To Engage Early On Middle East

John Bruton, the European Union's ambassador in Washington. i i

hide captionJohn Bruton, the European Union's ambassador in Washington, has encouraged the Obama administration to take a hard look at Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Patrick Dove/San Angelo Standard-Times
John Bruton, the European Union's ambassador in Washington.

John Bruton, the European Union's ambassador in Washington, has encouraged the Obama administration to take a hard look at Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank.

Patrick Dove/San Angelo Standard-Times
Karen Koning AbuZayd, who runs the United Nations Relief and Works Agency. i i

hide captionKaren Koning AbuZayd, who runs the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, worries that the deteriorating humanitarian situation in parts of Israel could further radicalize the Palestinian population.

Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images
Karen Koning AbuZayd, who runs the United Nations Relief and Works Agency.

Karen Koning AbuZayd, who runs the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, worries that the deteriorating humanitarian situation in parts of Israel could further radicalize the Palestinian population.

Joseph Barrak/AFP/Getty Images

As President-elect Barack Obama's transition staff looks at foreign policy, the Middle East and its many trouble spots will loom large. Some experts are advising Obama and his team to show early engagement in what they see as the region's core issue: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

There are growing doubts that a viable Palestinian state could emerge to live side by side in peace with Israel. President Carter's national security adviser, Zbigniew Brzezinski, told a group at the Aspen Institute that "the two-state solution is beginning to run out of room for implementation." He added, "Presidential involvement here is essential."

European foreign policy officials have put the Middle East peace process at the top of their wish list for a new U.S. foreign policy approach. The European Union's ambassador in Washington, John Bruton, has encouraged the Obama administration to take a hard look at Israeli settlement expansion in the West Bank. He argues that as Israelis head to the polls in February, they "need to know that there is an administration in Washington that wants the two-state solution to work, not just in theory, but in practice and soon."

Gaza is another trouble spot for would-be Middle East negotiators. Israel sealed off the region when the militant group Hamas seized control of the territory from the faction loyal to Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.

Open The Borders For Palestinians

Karen Koning AbuZayd, who runs the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, the U.N. agency that helps Palestinian refugees, is worried about the deteriorating humanitarian situation in Gaza and elsewhere, which could further radicalize some Palestinians.

"The things we'd like to see is that there is some opening of the borders in Gaza and opening of the access points in the West Bank, so the Palestinians can get back to taking care of themselves, which they are quite capable of doing," she said in a recent interview. "If they have open borders and access, people and goods can move in the territories and around."

At the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, scholar David Makovsky predicts that the incoming Obama administration will want to facilitate talks between Israel and Syria, now an ally of Iran. "I see the approach to be somewhat like Henry Kissinger did with the Egyptians in the 1970s," Makovsky says. "Namely, Kissinger was very skillful in prying Egypt away from the Soviet orbit."

The question for the next administration, he says, is whether it can do anything comparable with a "willing Israeli government in prying away Syria from an Iranian orbit?"

Iran Is 'The Greatest Danger'

A former undersecretary of state for political affairs, R. Nicholas Burns, warns that Iran is a major threat — not just because of its nuclear ambitions, but also for its support of terrorist groups and its overall influence in the region. "Iran has influence in Iraq and Afghanistan, and sometimes uses it against American interests," he says.

Iran is "the greatest danger and the greatest problem for the new administration, and it is going to have to be dealt with in an early stage," says Burns, who was the Bush administration's point person on Iran, but never had an opportunity to meet with Iranian officials. "That was not our policy," he said. Bush administration officials met with Iranians only in regard to specific issues, such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Many experts are calling for broader discussions with Iran. Bruton, the EU ambassador, is also looking forward to a new U.S. tack. He says Obama's approach "will be seen as helpful to either getting the Iranians to move in the direction we want them to move, in other words, abandoning their nuclear program, or demonstrating that they are not [negotiating] in good faith."

The administration will be torn in many directions, but needs to focus on all of these issues, from negotiations with Iran, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and a potential Israeli-Syrian track to helping Iraq as U.S. troops withdraw.

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