The message of the Washington summit to Syria and Iran

Raghida Dergham
Friday, September 3, 2010


The US Administration has crossed yet another stretch of road on its path towards reshuffling priorities over the past two weeks, by announcing the end of military combat operations in Iraq, and by hosting the Palestinian-Israeli peace process summit, in the presence of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Jordanian Monarch Abdullah II, to launch direct negotiations. Those absent from both discussions in a direct sense, yet present in both in any case, include Iran and Syria, as well as the great powers holding permanent membership in the Security Council, especially China and Russia.

Of course, there is some risk in the policy adopted by US President Barack Obama, as he wagers on peace, dialogue and convincing others. Yet such risk is more acceptable at the US and global levels than wagering on military might and on wars to produce change in the Middle East. And of course, there are those who interpret “Obamism” as a banner for political weakness and naivety. Nevertheless, there are also those who point to what is happening in the places targeted by the embracing policy of “Obamism”, such as Iran, to say that it is too early to judge in advance what this unusual policy will produce.

The entire world is observing “Obamism”, and perhaps one of its most prominent mistakes is that the circle surrounding it is sometimes formed of unusually usual people who have forgotten that “unusualness” requires explaining and perseverance, not bureaucratic condescension. This is why many in the world do not know what Barack Obama has in mind and fear for the US to slip, even if not because of Barack Obama. Many therefore draft their future policies to the tune of new formulas emerging in the two coming decades, where China would gain economic prominence while the standing of the US would recede at every level.

Iran and Iraq, for example, are subject to global monitoring of how the relationship between the US and China will develop and how it will reflect on these two major countries at the oil level. Even in a country like Australia, with a relationship of strategic alliance with the United States, as well as an essential economic relationship with China, one which contributed to saving Australia from the clutches of the global financial crisis, thought is being put into the options available within the framework of the developing relationship between the United States and China. During a meeting of around 250 people, from among the most prominent personalities in various fields, political, military, economic and social, from the Indian Ocean region and from the rest of the world, hosted by Australia’s ADC (Australian Davos Connection) forum, a branch of the World Economic Forum (WEF), the issue of perseverance in assessing leadership, the elements of positioning and long-term strategies became prominent.

There at that meeting in Hayman Island, there was much talk of searching for the right place for a country like Australia within the framework of the relationship between the US and China. However, in general and social sessions, one could get to know Australia from a different perspective than the usual one, within the ADC meeting and outside of it. Thus for example, regarding the Middle East, it became apparent that, in people’s relationship with the Arab region, the role played by major Gulf airline companies holds prominence.

Indeed, these airlines compete prominently and in effect in the market, such that they have made it possible for individuals in Australia to think of connecting with the Arab region on their way to Europe, while they in the past had the option of resorting to the Southeast Asia route. Thus, airline companies such as Abu Dhabi’s Etihad Airways, Dubai’s Emirates Airlines and Qatar’s Qatar Airways play highly significant roles in bridging the gap between the Indian Ocean region and the Arab region. Indeed, they offer the consumer quality services for reasons of competition, yet at the same time they open very important gateways in interaction between people and cultures.

Australia, far away from everywhere, is an important partner in the Group of Twenty (G20), which brings together major countries and has effectively replaced the Group of Eight (G8) industrialized countries. The G20 includes from the Arab World only the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. There is thus some interest in shaping special bilateral relations between the leaders of the G20 for numerous reasons, including: politics and positioning oneself in the world of bilateral exchange, as well as global issues important for humanity as a whole such as “climate change” and combating poverty.

Noteworthy among Australia’s elite circles is the fact that the majority is not automatically biased in favor of Israel within the framework of the Palestinian-Israeli issue, but rather concerned with the aspect of justice for the Palestinians under occupation. This is but one of the aspects that can be enquired about, clarified, and worked on building upon in the Arab relationship with Australia, a country that carries some weight in the G20 and in other international forums. And Australia is just one example of how to gather spontaneous support for the basics of issues that concern the Arab region.

President Barack Obama has this week set forth a de facto schedule, whereby the process of direct negotiations between the Palestinians and the Israelis now has a timeframe limited to one year. Obama does not want the US to monopolize sponsorship of this process, but has made sure to assert the important role of the leaders of the Quartet on the Middle East, which includes Russia, the European Union and the United Nations alongside the United States. President Obama has not threatened to sanction Israel through UN resolutions if it fails at peace and continues to violate international laws.

Yet Israel has understood perfectly that its “protection belt from accountability” could be withdrawn under Barack Obama, leaving it globally thunderstruck in a way it has never experienced before. And that is a new dynamic in the relationship between the US and Israel and for Israel’s situation in the world. During the Washington summit this week, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made sure not to exploit the first terrorist operation aimed at undermining the negotiations to start backing out of these negotiations and to hold the Palestinians responsible. So far, Netanyahu has not rushed to declare – as others among successive Israeli leaderships have – that the main problem is that Israel lacks a Palestinian “partner” in peace negotiations. That is so far. What does the Israeli leadership have in mind and does Netanyahu really want to reach the two-state solution in a fair way and on the basis of international consensus over the vision of the two states, whereby the state of Palestine would replace the occupation with limited land swaps of a limited percentage of territories?

Perhaps Netanyahu brings a surprise, of the same sort as the surprises of extremists like him who have assumed Israeli leadership before him, such as Menachem Begin. And perhaps he will confirm his record and his reputation of being insincere and of avoiding peaceful solutions. Yet today, because of the lack of willingness or preparedness of the Arabs for war against Israel, there is no better offer than the strategy of President Barack Obama for bilateral negotiations, with the support and under the supervision of not just the US, but an international partnership.

What Arab countries should do during this period is to support the Palestinian Authority headed by President Mahmoud Abbas in the negotiations and in the concessions required by peace, and to support Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad as he focuses on building and strengthening the institutions of the Palestinian state. Thus if the state is established, its institutions would be ready. And if the negotiations fail and the two-state solution collapses, Palestinian state institution would have grown in the face of the occupation, to be the instruments of its defeat at the end of the day.

The Washington summit also sent a message to Syria and Iran. To Syria, the message is clear, and it is that the peace process between the Palestinians and the Israelis now has priority, but that this does not mean excluding a Syrian-Israeli negotiation process in parallel. In other words, it is out of the question today to toy with the priorities in terms of tracks of negotiations, this because the Palestinian issue is according to US policies the one with the greatest and strongest relation to the requirements of the US’s national interest.

To Iran, the message is also of the utmost clarity, signifying that the Islamic Republic of Iran might be able to disturb the regional system, trouble it, upset it and perhaps obstruct it a little. However, the Islamic Republic of Iran will not be able to define the main features of the regional system, regardless of how much it imagines that being America’s enemy is a fruitful and useful ideology in the Middle East, and that it holds effective instruments in Hezbollah in Lebanon or Hamas in Palestine. Thus if it opposes the peace process, that is its concern and its opinion, but Iran is not in a situation that would allow it to participate in drawing the map of the regional system, especially with regard to the Arab-Israeli peace process.

Iran needs Israel as an enemy, exactly like Israel needs Iran as an enemy. Perhaps the nuclear issue would be useful for the two enemies who agree on being enemies each for their own ends and considerations. As for the Palestinian issue, it is today temporarily spared the tug of war of the two enemies, who have never fought each other before or entered into a direct war of any kind. The message was also sent to Iran through the gateway of Iraq, and it is that Iraq will not fall into the clutches of the ethnic sectarianism which Tehran had sought, regardless of how much it is today struggling through a political crisis, one which is shameful to a certain extent.

Indeed, Iraq is the wealth of tomorrow for all international players, including the US, China and Russia. It is also the backyard from which the regime in Tehran could suffer, if the security situation were to deteriorate in Iraq. The warning is therefore about the harmful aspects of taking risks in Iraq. This warning does not come from Washington alone, as its vibrations are also clear equally from Beijing and Moscow. The coming two weeks are important within the framework of Barack Obama’s propositions on the international scene when the United Nations General Assembly holds its session, a short time after the two important events in Iraq and in Palestine and Israel. Indeed, Barack Obama has shuffled the cards in a calculated risk, and perhaps he should now remove some of the obscurity surrounding what he has in mind and what he holds in hand.

*Published in the London-based AL-HAYAT on Sept. 3, 2010