With the appointment of a Special Middle East envoy, President Obama appears to be embarking on a familiar though unrewarding path. Many Presidents have tried this very public approach to tackling the Arab-Israeli conflict, often to the detriment of their own standing in the world and that of the United States. Rather than going immediately for the brass ring of a final settlement of this centuries old conflict, the new president has the opportunity to make real progress on smaller issues first, which will make the ultimate push for an end to the conflict more likely. Here is what he might do:
1. Block Transmission of Hamas-Run Media:
On September 9, 2008, the House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on the Bush administration to designate al-Aqsa TV as a Specially Designated Global Terrorist entity (SGDT). Technically, this determination would come from the Department of the Treasury, as had occurred with Al Manar, the television station of Hezbollah. Like Al Manar, al-Aqsa engages in hateful and violent anti-American propaganda (telling viewers, in a clip aired on MSNBC, for example, that the White House will one day be turned into a mosque). However, incendiary comments such as this are not why Al Manar was designated an SDGT and why al- Aqsa should be given this terrorist status.
Funded by Iran and donors from around the world, al- Aqsa serves as a tool for everything from fundraising to recruitment of suicide bombers. During armed conflicts with the Israelis, al- Aqsa has gotten on the air to inform Palestinian rocketing teams that their Qassams have fallen “ a little to the right.”
Al -Aqsa is carried by three major satellite companies: Saudi-based, Arab League-owned Arabsat, Egypt's Nilesat and France's Eutelsat. The latter, due to public pressure, has already dropped Al Manar from transmission on its satellites.
Restricting the ability of a committed Islamist terrorist group such as Hamas from recruitment and incitement across Europe and the Middle East is certainly an important goal for the new administration. As Mr. Obama said in his inaugural address, there must be a strong response to those “who seek to sow conflict or blame their society’s ills on the West.”
2. Upgrade Israel’s Missile Defense:
The world first heard about the Patriot Missile Defense (developed by Raytheon for the U.S. Army) during the Gulf War of 1991. At that time, the system, known as Patriot Advanced Capability -2 (PAC-2) was moderately successful in shooting down Iraqi Scuds headed toward Saudi Arabia (70 % effective) and Israel (40 %). Israel is still using that same system. But the updated system, the Patriot Advanced Capability-3 (PAC-3), offers a much more powerful radar and state of the art improvements in communications to allow higher likelihood of destruction of incoming enemy Tactical Ballistic Missiles.
Israel, along with its American partners, is currently working to develop its own missile defense against rockets with ranges of up to 200 miles. This system, known as David’s Sling, would defend against missiles with heavy warheads such as the Iranian Zilzal, which can reach Tel Aviv from southern Lebanon and was found to be in the hands of Hezbollah during the war of 2006. However, David’s Sling is not expected to be operational for close to ten years. In the meantime, Israel remains a tempting target using older technology. (The upgrade to PAC-3 has already been purchased by Germany and the Netherlands, and an agreement of sale with the United Arab Emirates was recently announced. The U.S. Army, under its Pure Fleet Initiative, is upgrading all of its PAC-2s). Analysts in this country and in Israel believe the sticking point is funding.
Military psychologists point out that nothing is more deflating to terrorists than seeing their efforts publicly thwarted, as was the case when Saddam Hussein’s Scuds were destroyed –on television-over the skies of Saudi Arabia. Having this system in place would serve as a real deterrent. As was the case during and since the recent military activity in Gaza, no serious progress can be made on the diplomatic front during times of war.
Neutralizing (or at least minimizing) the threat of war on Israel’s northern border is in the interest of everyone –except, possibly, the leaders in Teheran.
3. More Boots (loafers) on the Ground:
There is disagreement between Israelis and Palestinians as to the value of joint ventures and economic projects. While some current Knesset members see such cooperation as essential to repairing the trust that has eroded between the two sides, Palestinians are wary that such partnerships are a ploy designed to delay the hard negotiations they desire. But both sides realize that a stronger, more stable Palestinian economy can only serve to strengthen the Palestinian Authority in the West Bank, ever mindful of the threat that Hamas still poses.
According to Ambassador J. Anthony Holmes, past President of the American Foreign Service Association and the Cyrus Vance Fellow in Diplomatic Studies at the Council of Foreign Relations, the present staffing of the U.S. Foreign Service as well as the U.S. Agency for International Development is significantly less than it needs to be if the new administration is going to hit the ground running in the Middle East. The Ambassador points out that the vacancy rate for Foreign Service Officers overseas is currently approximately 21%. Regardless of whether one agrees with Ambassador Holmes that the Bush administration held a “disdain for diplomacy”, the numbers speak for themselves. Any progress made at the economic and humanitarian level will only make peacemaking that much more likely. Such progress would certainly effect the way America is viewed in the region.
4. Lower Expectations:
Nothing diminishes a President more than public failure. President Clinton believed that his inability to close the deal at Camp David (between Ehud Barak and Yasir Arafat during the final days of his administration) caused “irreparable damage” to his credibility on the world stage. Less talk about “peace in our time”, combined with concrete and visible successes.
Active engagement in the Middle East is important for the Obama administration. With regard to the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, a breakthrough would be a big win for the President. Perhaps even more important, is avoiding a big loss.