Much of the news media coverage of President Obama’s Middle East trip focused on the quest for Israeli-Palestinian peace, the “Holy Grail” of recent American presidents. But that issue, though important, is simply not ripe for resolution. Peace is impossible as long as Hamas, with its commitment to Israel’s destruction, retains its stranglehold over Gaza. Even if Israel were to negotiate a perfect peace settlement with the Palestinian Authority, Hamas is well-positioned to explode any agreement with another round of rocket terrorism. The best that can be expected in the president’s second term is an interim agreement that would set the framework for a future deal.
Although Secretary of State John Kerry reportedly wants to catalyze Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, he will find that urgent issues spawned by Iran and Syria will demand much of his focus. Kerry’s first trip in his new job was dominated by the Syrian issue. The planned highlight of his tour, the “Friends of Syria” conference in Rome, was nearly disrupted by a threatened boycott by Syrian opposition leaders, who are disgruntled by a perceived lack of meaningful support from the United States.
Kerry averted the threatened boycott by promising to deliver enhanced nonlethal aid to opposition forces directly rather than through nongovernmental organizations, but this alone will not prevent a disastrous collapse of U.S. policy on Syria. Kerry, who has favored arms aid to the opposition, must convince President Obama that the risks of providing light weapons to vetted factions of the opposition have been eclipsed by the risks of remaining on the sidelines while the opposition falls under the growing influence of Islamist extremists funded by Saudi Arabia and Qatar.
Iran’s nuclear challenge also will be a top priority for the administration. President Obama and Prime Minister Netanyahu appeared to have narrowed their differences on how to respond to this threat during Obama’s visit. Both leaders publicly stressed Israel’s right to take action in self-defense. Although this was interpreted by some observers as the president giving Israel a green light to launch a preventive strike against Iran’s nuclear program, it is more likely an effort to reinforce the international pressure on Iran to make the concessions.
Sanctions alone are unlikely to dissuade Iran from continuing on its present course. The U.S. also must present a credible threat that it will use military force if Tehran continues its diplomatic stalling tactics. It was no coincidence that Iran froze its nuclear program in 2003, after seeing the Bush administration take military action in Afghanistan and Iraq.
But Tehran reversed course and resumed its nuclear efforts after it concluded that the U.S. was bogged down in Iraq. Pressuring Iran to reverse course once again is likely to be the most important international issue that the Obama administration confronts in its second term.
First appeared in The New York Times.