x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 21 January 2018

US visit agendas put Syria and Iran ahead of Palestine

John Kerry and Barack Obama are coming to the region, but the dismal state of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations is unfortunately not a high priority.

John Kerry leaves Washington today on his first trip abroad as US secretary of state. After stops in western Europe, Turkey and Egypt, Mr Kerry will attend a GCC ministerial meeting in Riyadh, and then visit the UAE and Qatar.

A few weeks later Barack Obama will make his first trip to Israel as US president, followed by his first visits to Palestine and Jordan.

High on the agenda of both men will be the civil war in Syria and the regional crisis it has created, as well as Iran's nuclear programme.

Previous maiden voyages to the region by presidents and their top emissaries have focused on Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking. I hope that I will be proven wrong, but I do not believe that we will see any serious new US effort on that subject now.

I say this not because I believe the White House has lost interest in resolving this conflict, nor because I think American leaders no longer understand that Israeli-Palestinian peace is vital to US interests in the region.

The reason for my pessimism is simpler: current conditions make progress impossible, and pretending otherwise would be foolish.

First, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, has so far been unable to form a government. (This is the stated reason why Mr Kerry is not going to Israel.) The recent Israeli election weakened Mr Netanyahu. Ever the manoeuvrer, he is now trying to cobble together a governing coalition by tilting this way and that - mixing secular and religious parties, combining advocates of renewed talks with the Palestinians with hardline opponents. Mr Netanyahu appears to thrive on dysfunction; the paralysis it produces allows him to rule while avoiding tough decisions.

He will be forced to call new elections, or else to form a government of indecision. My bet is that desperation will win out and, fearing that he might do worse in a new round of voting, he will form a weak governing coalition - able to expand settlements but incapable of advancing peace.

The Palestinian situation is also dysfunctional. Unity talks between Fatah and Hamas have been fruitless. We once criticised the notion of an endless "peace process" that was all process and no peace. This appears to have been replaced by a "reconciliation process" that is all process and no reconciliation.

Given their divisions, it is difficult to see how Palestinians can move forward with any peacemaking.

Not only are Israelis and Palestinians unable to make peace, but so is the US. Washington remains unable to deal with the issue.

The continued resistance of Congress to any reasoned discourse on Israel was on display this month during the debate over Chuck Hagel's confirmation as secretary of defence.

This hearkened back to the humiliating "smackdown" Congress delivered to the president in 2011, by backing Mr Netanyahu's position over Mr Obama's.

So it is hard to see a bold initiative coming from Washington. Israelis wouldn't accept it. Palestinians couldn't do anything with it. And Congress wouldn't support it.

That does not mean the White House can do nothing. The president can raise critical questions and support positive behaviour while challenging bad behaviour.

He may warn that expanding Israeli colonies in the West Bank and East Jerusalem will make peace impossible. Israelis will, no doubt, be told that the US will continue to support their security, but they should also be challenged to choose between a future of peace and partnership or one in which they remain at war.

Also, Mr Obama can and should address Palestinian realities, giving support to Palestine's civil society and business community.

However, that kind of lecturing, recognising real needs and making gestures of support, may be all that can be expected at this time.

In any case, Iran and Syria will likely dominate Mr Obama's agenda, as well as Mr Kerry's. These pressing regional concerns cannot be ignored. Mr Kerry's itinerary, including Turkey and three Gulf states, shows how vital these topics are.

The flood of Syrian refugees to Jordan, Turkey, and Lebanon has become a humanitarian disaster, especially in Jordan. Also of concern is the fear that Syria's violence and instability will spill over into the broader region.

Almost from the beginning, Syria's civil war has been a regional proxy war in which no one wins and everyone loses. After 70,000 deaths, there are hints of an international initiative, with the US and Russia in the lead, to find a negotiated settlement.

For this to succeed, the Russians, the Turks and the Gulf states must be on board. With Jordan's King Abdullah fresh from a visit to Russia, this will be a critical topic of discussion.

And as new talks begin with the Iranians over their nuclear programme, Gulf Arab states will want assurances that their concerns will be considered.

Israel is again making unhelpful "red line" warnings but at this point their threats of a military strike ring hollow. With Iran losing popularity in the Arab world because of its involvement in Syria, the last thing the already unsettled region needs is a new disruption. The Israelis should be told to cool their rhetoric.

The agenda for these visits will be different than those of previous visits by top US leaders. It will, no doubt, disappoint those desperate to see the Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolved. But reality trumps aspirations and at this point, Syria and Iran are more urgent.


James Zogby is the president of the Arab American Institute

On Twitter: @aaiusa