Iran, Israel, Palestine
Barack Obama
International Relations

ABC This Week featured one of Barack Obama’s first major news interviews in weeks.  He covered some new ground on Iran and gave some disappointing answers on issues like Gaza.  For some reason, Obama feels empowered to strike out on his own in announcing a decisive break from Bush policy toward Iran (but not Gaza):

…We are going to have to take a new approach. And I’ve outlined my belief that engagement is the place to start. That the international community is going to be taking cues from us in how we want to approach Iran.

And I think that sending a signal that we respect the aspirations of the Iranian people, but that we also have certain expectations in terms of how a international actor behaves…

…Well, I think a new emphasis on respect and a new emphasis on being willing to talk, but also a clarity about what our bottom lines are. And we are in preparations for that. We anticipate that we’re going to have to move swiftly in that area.

This is a blessing and a relief to so many Americans who voted for a decisive break with Bush’s disastrous policies of bellicosity and threats.

On a related matter, the AP has reported that Dennis Ross is likely to be named the special Mideast envoy possibly supervising Iran and Israel-Palestine matters.  There are many in the progressive community who are concerned with this development because Ross comes directly out of the Aipac environment.  During and after Camp David in the Clinton administration he placed full blame for its failure at Arafat’s feet and refused to blame either Clinton or Barak as other witnesses to the events did.

While I share concerns about Ross, I’m trying not to let them exercise me for two reasons: first the statement above.  Obama has given a clear view of his agenda and it will Ross’ job to implement his boss’ views.  It will NOT be Ross’ job to implement his own views.  Second, I heard Rob Malley interviewed on Friday on To the Point and he said that Ross’ appointment didn’t concern him because he didn’t see Ross as a freelancer, but as a team player.  I trust Rob Malley’s instincts on these matters.

So while I have no great love for Ross, as long as he pursues Obama’s policy of engagement and negotiation over saber-rattling, I have no problem with him.

The big disappointment in the interview concerns Gaza.  Obama insists on keeping his eyes on the prize, which is an overall settlement of the conflict.  All that’s to the good.  The only problem is that the Gaza disaster could wreck any chances of getting to a comprehensive agreement in the near to medium-term due to the bitterness not only of Palestinians, but of all Muslims and Arabs. Here’s how he addressed the subject beginning with a defense of Israel’s attack:

I think a basic principle of any country is that they’ve got to protect their citizens. And so what I’ve said is that given the delicacy of the situation, the one area where the principle of one president at a time has to hold is when it comes to foreign policy.

We cannot have two administrations at the same time simultaneously sending signals in a volatile situation. But what I am doing right now is putting together the team so that on January 20th, starting on day one, we have the best possible people who are going to be immediately engaged in the Middle East peace process as a whole.

That are going to be engaging with all of the actors there. That will work to create a strategic approach that ensures that both Israelis and Palestinians can meet their aspirations.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But as you know, in much of the Arab world, your silence…has been interpreted as callousness. And we also had a viewer question on this, Marin Guerrero of Riverside, California, asks you: “Why is Obama remaining silent on the Gaza crisis when so many innocent people are being killed?”

OBAMA: Well, look, I have said — and I think I said this a couple of days back, that when you see civilians, whether Palestinian or Israeli, harmed, under hardship, it’s heartbreaking. And obviously what that does is it makes me much more determined to try to break a deadlock that has gone on for decades now.

STEPHANOPOULOS: But more broadly, will your policy in the Middle East, will it be building on the Bush policy or a clean break?

OBAMA: Well, you know, I think that if you look not just at the Bush administration, but also what happened under the Clinton administration, you are seeing the general outlines of an approach.

And I think that players in the region understand the compromises that are going to need to be made. But the politics of it are hard. And the reason it’s so important for the United States to be engaged and involved immediately, not waiting until the end of their term, is because working through the politics of this requires a third party that everybody has confidence, wants to see a fair and just outcome.

And I think that an Obama administration, if we do it right, can provide that…

So the best that Obama’s willing to give us is that the Israeli-Arab conflict will be a high priority from day one. But he refuses to tip his hand as to what even his most general philosophical outlook will be.  Personally, I think he’s rolling craps on this.  If his gamble pays off he can ride out the Gaza attack and get into the bigger picture of solving the Israel’s major conflicts with Syria, Lebanon and the Palestinians.  But if the gamble fails and the well is poisoned in the Arab world for months or more to come because of the heinousness and barbarity of Israel’s actions, then he won’t look so smart.

I think he’s missing an opportunity.  A statement that reflects sympathy for both parties while calling on Israel to ratchet down the violence and embrace an immediate ceasefire might also be a gamble.  But isn’t a gamble worthwhile when 900 Gazans have already died and the Arab world is clamoring for Israeli and U.S. blood?

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