US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s unannounced visit to Lebanon on 26 April suggested President Obama is in no hurry to develop his Middle East policy.
Lebanon’s future is an important issue. And Clinton was right to be clear about where the US stands. But it is a sideshow compared with the challenge presented by the election of an Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu and the radicalisation of Palestinian politics in the West Bank and Gaza.
It is more than 100 days since Obama was sworn in as president. He has a full domestic agenda and a host of international issues to navigate. It is unsurprising that Obama has taken his time with Middle East matters. A new administration, particularly when it involves a change of party, usually starts with a bottom-up review of past policy and future options.
In 2001, President Bush’s team did practically nothing in the Middle East until the 11 September attacks on the US. And there has been some activity since January. Clinton’s special Middle East envoy George Mitchell has been to the region three times. It is good but no substitute for a clear policy direction.
In the meantime, the direction of the Arab-Israel peace process is being defined by the Israelis.
In an interview with the Israeli daily newspaper Haaretz on 28 April, Israel’s Defence Minister Ehud Barak said Netanyahu must declare his support for a two-state solution if he is to secure the support of the US administration and the international community. This is something that Netanyahu has failed to do since being sworn in at the end of March.
Barak said if he refuses to back an independent Palestinian state, there would be a risk the world would press Israel instead for a bi-national solution instead. This would involve absorbing occupied territories into Israel and granting Palestinians living there Israeli nationality.
Barak’s purpose was to put pressure on Netanyahu ahead of his visit to Washington in May. But Barak’s domestic credibility, after his party lost seats in Israel’s February poll, is modest. It is unlikely his warnings have worried Netanyahu.
Instead, Israel’s prime minister is planning to make Iran his top issue while demanding the Palestinians should recognise Israel as a Jewish state. The Palestinians have always refused to do this because they fear it would undermine their demand for the right of refugees to return.
President of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas, faced by Netanyahu’s obduracy and pressure from his rivals, has begun to sound increasingly defiant.
The missing voice in this debate is that of the US administration explaining what American strategy for the Middle East is.
Obama is being credited with wisdom for not trying to take a leadership role in the region’s affairs too soon. The Middle East, nevertheless, wants to know where the White House stands. After so many setbacks, most are prepared to be patient. But the time is coming when the Obama policy will have to be revealed. Another 100 days is far too long to wait.