The Future of U.S. Mideast Diplomacy
What Might We Expect from the Obama Administration

By Daniel Kurtzer

Dr. Daniel Kurtzer, Obama presidential campaign advisor and former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Egypt, assesses the Administration's engagement in the region to date and speculates on possible future directions. This piece was edited and abridged from a Brit Tzedek conference call conducted with Dr. Kurtzer on March 11, 2009. For a transcription and podcast of the call, see:

We all know and appreciate that the Obama Administration has gotten off to a very quick start with respect to the Middle East peace process. This Administration, unlike previous ones, did not wait years to begin working on the peace process in earnest.  In a number of areas, in less than two months, the Administration has really sped down the highway. However, it is still very unclear where they're going. 

This uncertainty has raised some questions as to whether or not we're seeing action for the sake of appearances or whether there is a concerted strategy.

  • We have not yet seen any serious pronouncements with regard to Israeli settlement activity in spite of the fact that during the same period, there have been a number of Israeli announcements of continued settlement expansion.

  • We've seen no indication yet whether the Administration is prepared to express its own views, either in public or in a more private setting, with respect to final status issues.

  • We haven't seen a gameplan yet with respect to the Syria-Israeli track of negotiations.

  • The visits to the region by Senator George Mitchell and Secretary Hillary Clinton have suggested that the Administration is still finding its way with respect to a direction of where to go.

The Administration is trying to play the peace process cards in the context of other substantial activities in the region. President Obama indicated that there is a kind of triad of issues that face the United States in this region, and you've got to be working on all of these problems simultaneously. The President wants to accelerate withdrawal from Iraq and that will have its own challenges; at least of equal, if not of greater importance, will be the Administration's strategy vis-à-vis Iran. These problems need to be addressed and will not depend entirely on the resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The real question though is, does the Administration have the intention and has it established peace as a priority to move forward expeditiously?

If the Arab world sees that the United States is engaged, that the appointment of George Mitchell was not for show but for serious engagement, it will help us as we do our diplomacy vis a vis Iraq and Iran. It doesn't guarantee that it will make those diplomatic efforts more successful. But one guarantee is, that if we don't engage in Arab-Israeli diplomacy, we will be less successful in things that we do elsewhere in the region.

From my experience in the campaign, I am convinced that the President remains very much committed to what he said, that the search for peace in the Middle East is not a favor that we do for the parties, but rather it's a vital national U.S. interest. If the President remains committed, then it gives me confidence that some of the uncertainties in U.S. policy will work themselves out, and hopefully we'll have a period of active, engaged, and positive diplomacy. 

I also think that the work of Brit Tzedek v'Shalom is indicative that there is public support for the U.S. to resume activity, and that's going to be critical for a president who is otherwise absorbed with a lot of issues.

Aftermath of the War in Gaza

There is a challenging environment on the ground. For instance, neither side can deliver a knockout punch, there's a humanitarian crisis, the war raised the question of whether Gaza is governable, a major gulf developed between the Arab governments and the Arab "street", and between and among Arab governments themselves.

  • There is a need to ensure that the ceasefire holds -- and it's not holding. Rockets have landed in Israel almost everyday -- sometimes multiple rocket attacks. There is a question as to how long Israel's patience will hold. There appears to be, and I say that with question marks, an effort by Hamas to maintain the ceasefire, but so far it has been far from perfect.

If there is a ceasefire, however frail, it will not operate on the basis of its own momentum. It requires monitoring, the necessity of establishing buffer zones, probably some kind of international force of observers, international mechanisms for dealing with arms smuggling and enhanced Egyptian efforts to stop the usage of the tunnels.

  • The largest question is what happens on the ground in Gaza? Does Hamas resume its very unpopular governance, or do Palestinian unity attempts now underway succeed in reestablishing some central government control?

    One of the things that the donor community indicated in a recent international conference to help rebuild Gaza is: How do they know it's not going to happen again? And is good money going to be poured after bad money? And who's in charge of the distribution of this international aid? Many of the donors, including the U.S., have said that they do not want to funnel any aid whatsoever through Hamas, and that's why the U.S.'s contribution or promise of 900 million dollars was largely skewed towards the Palestinian Authority-ruled West Bank.

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