x Abu Dhabi, UAE Thursday 20 July 2017

Obama signals change to US policy in the Middle East

Barack Obama said he would dispatch his newly appointed Middle East envoy to the region "as soon as possible".

Barack Obama said he would dispatch his newly appointed Middle East envoy to the region "as soon as possible" as he aggressively pursued an end to one of the world's most intractable conflicts. George Mitchell, a veteran diplomat who helped forge the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, has been assigned to shore up a fragile truce in Gaza, where both sides are threatening to break the ceasefire if their demands are not met.

Mr Obama also named Richard Holbrooke, best known for crafting a peace agreement in 1995 that ended bloodshed in Bosnia, as a special co-ordinator of US policy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, another region that poses a major challenge for the new administration. Speaking after he made the two key appointments on Thursday, Mr Obama said he would usher in a "new era of American leadership". He said diplomacy would play a bigger role in his administration's foreign policy, both in seeking peace and protecting the country from security threats. He has put a peace deal in the region at the top of his foreign policy agenda.

"It will be the policy of my administration to actively and aggressively seek a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians as well as Israel and its Arab neighbours," Mr Obama said. On his second day of office, Mr Obama called Washington's long-standing allies in the Middle East ? Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, Hosni Mubarak, Egypt's president, Mahmoud Abbas, the leader of the Palestinian Authority, and King Abdullah of Jordan.

Addressing the Gaza conflict for the first time since his inauguration, Mr Obama said the outline for a durable ceasefire was clear: "Hamas must end its rocket fire; Israel will complete the withdrawal of its forces from Gaza." He pledged his support to a "credible" anti-smuggling regime that would prevent Hamas from rearming. The announcements came as the ceasefire in Gaza, less than a week old, appeared to be on shaky ground. Israel warned it would strike Gaza again if Hamas was allowed to rearm and expressed concern that smuggling through tunnels along the Egyptian border had resumed.

Hamas said the ceasefire was conditional on Israel lifting its blockade on the strip, and has set a deadline of tomorrow for the borders to be fully opened. However, in a tone reminiscent of the outgoing administration, Mr Obama said America was committed to Israel's security and would support its right to defend itself. The Palestinian Authority and Israel both welcomed Mr Mitchell's appointment.

Mr Obama stressed the importance of international humanitarian relief for Gaza after the 22-day operation that claimed more than 1,300 Palestinian lives, according to medics, and destroyed thousands of homes. Thirteen Israelis were killed during the fighting. Israel yesterday opened its border to allow foreign journalists and aid workers into the region for the first time in three weeks, but the UN said more food and medicines were needed.

Talking about Afghanistan, the US president said problems cannot be tackled without addressing issues in the volatile border area with Pakistan, where the Taliban and al Qa'eda have been regrouping. Mr Holbrooke described Afghanistan and Pakistan as two "distinct" countries entwined by history and ethnic ties. Mr Obama, who has already said he will boost troop numbers in the war-torn Afghanistan, warned of the difficulties of the conflict, underlining a sharp increase in violence.

"The American people and the international community must understand that the situation is perilous and progress will take time." The new US president has promised non-military aid to Pakistan, devoted in part to developing remote tribal areas where militants have taken route. Mr Holbrooke faces an array of challenges in his new role and will have to regularly shuttle between the two countries to co-ordinate efforts in the border region. He will also need to address tensions between India and Pakistan, whose relations have worsened since the Mumbai attacks, which India has blamed on Pakistani militants.

lmorris@thenational.ae