POLITICS-US: Obama Taking Hands-On Approach to Mideast

  • Analysis by Helena Cobban* (washington)
  • Inter Press Service

Now, 10 days into his term, he looks to have made good on that promise. Along the way, he has deftly taken over effective control of the Palestinian file from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, signaling very clearly that he judges this issue to be -along with the economic crisis - one of the two top priorities of his presidency.

The major actions Obama has taken on the Palestine issue are well-known: the calls he made to Arab and Israeli leaders on 'Day One', the naming of former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as special envoy two days later, and then Obama's own Jan. 26 interview with the al-Arabiya television network, which was the first substantive sit-down interview he gave as president to any network, domestic or foreign.

When Mitchell was named as envoy Jan. 22, it was done by Clinton in the State Department - though she did say he had been named by both the president and herself. Obama was notably also present at that semi-public gathering, and it was then he, not Clinton, who gave a detailed description of Mitchell's job description. Four days later, when Mitchell was formally dispatched on his speedy first 'listening tour' of the region, that tellingly happened in the White House; and once again it was Obama who described what Mitchell's task on the tour would be.

When Obama nominated Clinton as secretary of state Dec. 1, he expressed his 'full confidence' in her and indicated that she would be fully in charge of all aspects of his administration's diplomacy. His subsequent capture of the Palestine file from her desk was gracious, but notable.

It is significant for two reasons. First, it clearly informs all the interested parties, at home and abroad, that this president - unlike his two predecessors - is from the beginning giving this ever-sensitive issue the level of presidential-level attention that analysts have always said it needs if it is to be successfully addressed.

Second, having effective control of his Palestine policy undertaken by the White House allowed Obama to roll it out, literally, 'on Day One' without having to wait for the possibly lengthy congressional confirmation hearings that are required for State Department officials at the relevant level.

Given the tight 'message discipline' within the Obama team, it has thus far been impossible to discern the extent to which the Israel-Gaza war, which continued until two days before Obama's inauguration, affected his thinking on the Palestine question. But the crisis around the war must certainly have shown him the danger of leaving this issue to fester unaddressed, which has been the outcome whenever previous presidents followed the counsel of those who urged waiting for the situation to become 'ripe' for resolution, before they engaged seriously with it.

One strong advocate of this 'ripeness theory' has for many years been President Bill Clinton's senior Middle East adviser, Dennis Ross. Back on Jan. 7, the pro-Israel think-tank where Ross has a position as counselor announced he would be joining Clinton's State Department as a 'senior adviser... on a wide range of Middle East issues, from the Arab-Israeli peace process to Iran.'

But the announcement was apparently premature. Ross has played no visible role in any of Obama or Clinton's activities on the Palestine question so far. (He may still, however, play some role on Iran.) George Mitchell, who was the Majority Leader in the Senate from 1989 through 1995, very clearly outranks Ross.

Shelley Deane, a professor at Mitchell's alma mater, Bowdoin College in Maine, has studied Mitchell's career closely for many years and now has special access to study the records of the presidentially commissioned investigation committee on the causes of the Second Palestinian Intifada that he submitted in April 2001.

She noted that Mitchell brings to his present task considerable experience in analysing and mediating conflicts, from his days in the U.S. Senate, from his leadership of the - often very thorny - negotiations that in 1998 brought an end to the violence in Northern Ireland, and from that earlier venture into Israeli-Palestinian fact-finding in 2000-2001.

Deane expects Mitchell to search actively for ways to fold Hamas into the diplomatic process as soon as possible, even if in the first instance this would happen not through direct U.S.-Hamas talks but by giving Washington's go-ahead to the intra-Palestinian reconciliation that Pres. George W. Bush previously worked so hard to oppose.

She said that Mitchell has an approach to peacemaking that stresses strong personal ethics of trustworthiness, discretion, persistence, and unflappability, and a deep commitment to even-handedness and the universality of core principles. Most or all of these are commitments that Obama - who was nicknamed 'No-Drama Obama' during his election campaign - also shares.

So, incidentally, does former president Jimmy Carter, who is undergoing a noticeable rehabilitation in Washington after years of being shunned by previous presidents, including President Clinton. Throughout the 28 years of his post-presidency Carter has doggedly advocated for Palestinian - as well as Israeli - rights. Last year he twice met personally with Hamas head Khaled Meshaal in Damascus. During one of those sessions he helped to secure the six-month ceasefire that Hamas concluded with Israel through Egyptian mediation last June.

Carter's lead Middle East adviser, Robert Pastor, said Thursday that Mitchell's first priority will be to solidify the still-shaky ceasefire ceasefire that Israel and Hamas both declared - in parallel, rather through any negotiation - on Jan. 20.

'Then, Mitchell and Obama need to turn rapidly to the many other tasks of peacemaking,' Pastor said. 'And that includes work on a final-status peace.'

One early challenge to the diplomatic effort will come Feb. 10, when Israelis go to elections. As of now, the rightwing Likud and parties even further to its right look well positioned for victory.

Pastor stressed, however, that Pres. Obama should stick to his guns and keep restating the United States' own strong interest in reaching a durable two-state outcome, both before and after Feb. 10. 'This is too important for U.S. interests for the president to soft-pedal it,' he said.

*Helena Cobban is a veteran Middle East analyst and author. She blogs at www.JustWorldNews.org.

© Inter Press Service (2009) — All Rights ReservedOriginal source: Inter Press Service