The visit by US President Barack Obama to the region represents a strong indicator of the latter’s continued vital importance to US policy, despite the US pivot to the Asia Pacific region.
It is likely that President Obama will seek to further entrench the American strategy based on avoiding direct military intervention in the region, while the Syrian crisis is expected to take a large portion of his visit’s agenda, as well as the Iranian nuclear program.
Though the Palestinian issue will no doubt be on the agenda as well, it is not expected that Obama will come out with any new ideas. Instead, he will probably seek to resolve the stalemate in the peace process, and create a suitable environment for the resumption of the negotiations.
He will also try to push towards easing Israeli restrictions and strengthening the internal political standing of Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), the Palestinian Authority (PA) and Fatah to be able to perform well at any upcoming elections.
With the announcement of Obama’s visit, starting March 20th, to the Middle East (specifically to Israel, the West Bank, Jordan, Egypt, Turkey and Saudi Arabia), a central question arises over what the visit can achieve and what issues it will seek to address.
The visit is taking place amid a number of realities and developments that have acted as determinants of US diplomatic engagement in the region in general, and the Palestinian issue in particular. The characteristics of the political environment can be summed up as follows:
1- A shift in US geostrategic priorities was announced, with the thrust being towards a greater focus on the Asia Pacific region, in parallel with reducing US military presence in Afghanistan in 2014, following the withdrawal from Iraq during Obama’s first term.
This has perhaps raised questions, particularly in Israel, over the implications of this shift on the strategic importance assigned to the Middle East in general, and Israel in particular, in US policy. This may be a key point of the discussions between the US president and regional leaders, especially in Israel and Turkey.
The features of the US shift became clearer following the appointments made in sensitive positions in the US administration, most notably in the intelligence services, in tandem with reducing the budget of these agencies after the reduction in military spending.
2- The increasing number of American studies on the gradual reduction of US dependence on Middle Eastern energy supplies –which have played a crucial role in determining US policies, from the 1920s to present day. This reinforces concerns once again over US readiness to intervene in the region’s crises, as it had done in previous stages. Obama may therefore seek to reassure Gulf countries and Israel that the new shift will not have an immediate and direct effect on US policy in the region, and that the aftereffects remain in the realm of “future scenarios and plans.”
3- Due to the impact of the wars and the global financial crisis on the US economy, Obama may carry proposals asking the Gulf countries to share a bigger slice of the financial burdens emerging from supporting Arab countries aligned with US policy, such as Jordan, Morocco, Egypt and Yemen, while reducing US commitments to these countries.
4- On the other hand, historic US interests in the region retain a great deal of importance. There is no doubt that Obama is keen to secure these interests amid the unrest seen in the countries of the region, which may entail a number of unforeseen developments that can catch US diplomacy by surprise. For the US, this is something that requires preparation, by engaging the leaders of the region and surveying their attitudes. Military leaders in the region may also be part of this engagement.
1- The most important discussions with the Israeli leaders will be over the repercussions of the recent Israeli airstrike in Syria, and the prospects of a response by Syria, Iran or Hizbullah. But no doubt, John Kerry, the new US Secretary of State, who will accompany Obama on his visit, will help guide US decision making by virtue of Kerry’s expertise on Syria, both as a former ambassador to Damascus and a prominent expert on Syrian affairs, and also by virtue of his previous cordial ties with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. This is not to mention Kerry’s leftwing tendencies, which may help ease the trail left by the neoconservatives in the region under the previous administrations.
2- The growing influence of armed Islamist groups in the region, particularly in Syria (after the emergence of al-Nusra Front and fears that the Regime’s unconventional weapons arsenal would fall into the hands of these groups); Tunisia (following the assassination of Shukri Bel‘id and the political crisis between Jabali and Ennahda); and in Egypt (with the continued crisis between the opposition National Salvation Front and the president, and the continuation of civil disobedience in a number of Egyptian governorates and their possible expansion). This is not mention al-Qaeda presence in Yemen and south of Arab Maghrib, and even the participation of the Jordanian Salafi movement in the fighting in Syria, and the escalating role of al-Qaeda in Iraq, etc.
3- The successive calls by the United States for Iran to negotiate over its nuclear program, which has put in doubt the possibility of the US resorting to the military option, or supporting an Israeli strike against Iranian facilities. This may be an essential part of Obama’s anticipated discussions with political and military leaders in Israel.
It is impossible to separate the dimensions mentioned above from the Palestinian scene, as each of them influences the latter in one way or another.
The US preoccupation with the Palestinian dimension stems from the concern that the impasse in the peace process may further increase tension in the Palestinian street, which may pave the way for a third Intifadah that would completely alter the situation.
To avoid this, the US administration is focusing on the following aspects in the context of encouraging both sides to resume talks as a first stage:
1- The PA financial standing: Obama may confirm the US financial support for the PA, in order to improve the latter’s chances in any upcoming election against Hamas, especially following a period of severe financial difficulty in the West Bank. Obama may assure the PA that Washington will provide it with aid worth two hundred million dollars, which Washington has suspended for months. He may raise this issue with the Gulf countries to urge them to contribute, too.
2- Israeli “enticements” to the PA, to create an environment that would help the latter return to negotiations. This may include:
a) Releasing some prisoners.
b) Granting the PA expanded jurisdictions in areas controlled by the occupation, in order to create a positive climate that would be conducive to the resumption of the talks between the two sides.
3- Obama may encourage Jordan and the PA to start discussions about confederacy between them. This may be received positively by certain Palestinian segments in the West Bank, despite the concerns it may raise among their Jordanian counterparts.
4- Obama may seek Israeli-Turkish rapprochement. This may take the form of persuading Israel to offer some kind of apology to Israel over the Freedom Flotilla incident. The rapprochement is desired by Israel, and would help the United States coordinate its policies in the region.
5- No doubt, Egypt’s reassertion of its commitment to the peace treaty and other understandings with Israel will be on Obama’s agenda during his discussions with the Egyptian government. Given the Israeli doubts on the future attitudes of the Muslim Brotherhood, in Egypt in particular and the rest of the Arab world in general, the outcome of the US-Egyptian talks will have a positive echo in Israel, and may increase its readiness to return to negotiations.
6- The question of Israeli settlements in the West Bank remains unresolved. This is the most difficult issue in the short term because of Israel’s insistence on continuing settlement building. But Obama may propose the idea that settlements be built (if abandoning it was rejected) in lands that could be swapped later with the PA, as part of a final solution.
7- Obama may seek to help Egypt obtain financial aid from his country, the World Bank, the Gulf countries or even from the Europeans, providing that Egypt would continue to “pull” Hamas towards further disengagement from Iran after it disengaged from Syria, maintaining the truce with Israel, and controlling tunnels in Gaza as well as arms smuggling. This would act as a prelude for achieving a later change in Hamas’s acceptance of a political settlement