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Thursday, November 29, 2012

Dear President Obama,

Congratulations on your reelection.

I am taking advantage of the opportunity provided by The Caravan Project at The Hoover Institution in order to respectfully offer advice on US policy in the Middle East in your second term. Middle Eastern issues, as we know, occupied an important place in your foreign policy agenda during your first term. Most of them remain unresolved and are likely to present significant challenges in the coming years.

There is too much talk of "the end of the American era," the rise of China rise, and so forth. Objective realities and economic trends must not be ignored, but the US is the only power capable of leading the global system and it must convey the sense that it has the power and the will to play that role. This is true in other parts of the world, but is felt most acutely in the Middle East.

Let me turn to four specific challenges. The first and most urgent is the Iranian quest for a nuclear arsenal. The clock is ticking and we do not want either a nuclear Iran or a messy regional war. We understand that the ground has been set for an American - Iranian dialogue. Teheran always saw Washington as the real negotiating partner for a potential settlement. But the negotiation must be conducted with full awareness of the Iranian skill to play for time. The negotiation should be part of a four-part strategy for a peaceful resolution of this crisis: the negotiation, a credible threat to use military force if needed, crippling sanctions, and a face saving exit for the Iranian regime. Needless to say, strict verification measures are a crucial component of any solution.

The second challenge is presented by ascendant Islamism. The Arab Awakening has so far produced Islamist regimes and more might be on the way. Elections are a necessary but not a sufficient component of the transition to democracy, and we now know that in most Arab and Muslim countries free elections are likely to bring Islamist groups to power. In Egypt, the Muslim Brotherhood is coping with the need to reconcile their doctrines with the realities of power and economics. Washington and other Western capitals are asking themselves whether a president like Mursi is a potential partner and whether a path can be found for reconciling their own interests and ideas with Egypt's new realities. You reflected Washington's predicament vis a vis the new Egypt by saying that the new regime was neither a foe nor a friend. It was an apt formulation, but it must be followed by a policy that will alleviate, if not solve the dilemma.

The civil war in Syria is a third challenge. It is first and foremost a humanitarian tragedy that must be effectively addressed by the international community. But it is also a crucial geopolitical issue. Syria became the arena on which the regional conflict between Iran and its adversaries is played out and where Russia is conducting a milder version of the cold war. The Syrian opposition is weak and fragmented, and Jihadi elements have penetrated the scene. It is also possible that the Syrian state will be fragmented for quite some time. Think about it in the context of a larger area that includes a fragmented Iraq, and a Lebanon dominated by Hizballah. During the preceding months the US was clearly worried by such measures as a "no fly zone" that could conceivably lead to a larger military intervention. It is time to jettison such worries and to assert American leadership. Syria may yet prove to be the place where humanitarian and geopolitical considerations converge successfully.

And there is the perennial Palestinian issue. At the moment, there is no "Syrian option"; progress can only be made on the Israeli - Palestinian track. But what progress? Clearly we have to wait for the outcome of the January 22 elections in Israel in order to know who the chief Israeli actor will be. It would be surprising if the January elections produce a center left wing government ready to resume the plan put forth by Ehud Olmert to the Palestinians in September 2008. The Palestinian National Authority on the West Bank is not the only player. Hamas in Gaza has its own statelet. Thus, my recommendation against this backdrop would be to focus not on an ambitious quest for a final status resolution but on a more modest quest for an interim settlement. This too is not going to be easy, but it would calm the Israeli - Palestinian arena and render easier the effort to deal with the other issues mentioned above.


Itamar Rabinovich, Tel Aviv

Itamar Rabinovich is a former Israeli Ambassador to Washington, D.C. and Chief Negotiator with Syria.


This post is part of The Caravan, a periodic discussion on the contemporary dilemmas of the Greater Middle East. Other commentary in this symposium on Obama’s Second Term – Middle Eastern Memos is provided by Russell Berman, Charlie Hill, Robert Satloff, Asli Aydintasbas, Habib Malik, Reuel Gerecht, Leon Wieseltier, Tammy Frisby, Abbas Milani, and Fouad Ajami.

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