Obama’s Middle East Team: Old Problems, New Style

The U.S. president's second-term team of secretaries and emissaries - including the major appointment of 'blank slate' Philip Gordon - augurs a new involvement in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking, though not necessarily on the part of Obama himself.

ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid
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ברק רביד - צרובה
Barak Ravid

One of the questions that occupies Israel and the Palestinians before U.S. President Barack Obama’s visit to the region in about two weeks time is what his policy on the peace process will be during his second term. Obama is not expected to present a new policy during his visit, but the new composition of his Middle East affairs team looks like it will bring a different approach and style to the talks with both sides.

Over the past 18 months, Obama has dealt very little, if at all, with the Israeli-Palestinian issue. The presidential election campaign, the departure of many advisers and the deep freeze of the talks have caused the American administration to engage mostly in maintenance and damage control.

Most of the talks with Israel and the Palestinians about the peace process were conducted by a group of relatively low-level officials such as special envoy David Hale, Ambassador Dan Shapiro and the consul general in Jerusalem, Michael Ratney. In November 2012, Obama and then-U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton were somewhat involved in the attempt to stop the Palestinians’ efforts at the United Nations, but without too much motivation.

Obama’s second term in general, and his appointment of John Kerry as secretary of state in particular, will require the American administration to formulate a new policy on the peace process. Obama is not showing much enthusiasm for dealing with the matter. He believes matters in Iran and Syria are more urgent. Therefore, he is leaving things to Kerry, who, as my colleague Chemi Shalev pointed out, is obsessed with the Israeli-Palestinian issue and hopes to reach a historic peace agreement by the end of his term in 2016.

A new team of advisers on Middle East affairs, which will accompany Obama and Kerry over the next four years, has been formed over the past few days. The distinguishing characteristic of each of these advisers is that they come from the well-known peace industry clique that has been accompanying the blame game between Israel and the Palestinians for the past 20 years.

The major appointment in this context is Philip Gordon, who will be starting his job next week as Obama’s coordinator for the Middle East – a position that has been vacant for the past year and a half. Gordon, who as part of his new job will be responsible for the whole sector between Marrakesh and Bangladesh, will replace veteran diplomat Dennis Ross, who retired in November 2011.

The fact that Gordon is replacing Ross says something about the approach that will prevail in the White House over the next four year. Ross, a long-time expert on Middle East affairs, accompanied the peace process from the first days of the Oslo Accords to the stalemate of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s second term. He knows all the players from every conceivable direction. He has heard it all, seen it all, tried everything, and - in the end - failed in everything.

Gordon will bring in a completely different style, a different way of seeing the world and a different point of view. Unlike Ross, he is actually an expert in European and Russian affairs – these were the subjects he dealt with as a high-ranking White House official during Bill Clinton’s presidency. He was a senior fellow at the International Institute for Strategic Studies in London and assistant secretary of state for European and Eurasian affairs under Hillary Clinton.

Ross was perhaps an experienced veteran in the field, but he accumulated many enemies in the Middle East. During Obama’s first term, the Palestinians saw Ross as a hostile element who served as Netanyahu’s long arm in the White House.

Although Gordon is familiar with the issues, he has little personal acquaintance with the various players in Jerusalem and Ramallah. In the current state of the peace process, this could be an advantage for him. Both sides will accept him as a blank slate, so he will be able to build a working relationship and trust in order to be seen as a man of fair dealing.

American administration officials believe that Gordon’s appointment may also be evidence of Obama’s desire to increase coordination with the European Union and Russia in dealing with Middle East issues. While such coordination is vital mainly in dealing with the Iranian nuclear program and the civil war in Russia, it is also important for dealing with the peace process with the Palestinians. The Europeans want to see progress and an American diplomatic initiative, and the Russians want to play a more important role in the process than in the past.

Now let’s move from the White House back to the State Department. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has not yet decided how to approach the Israeli-Palestinian issue. He has many ideas, but he is still in a listening position. During his visit to London, Paris and Berlin last week, he sought mainly to hear ideas from his European colleagues, and during his meeting with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas in Riyadh on Monday, he mostly listened to the Palestinian leader's complaints against Israel.

Kerry asked special envoy David Hale to stay on in his position until the summer, when he will go to Beirut to serve as the U.S. ambassador there. When that happens, Kerry intends his close adviser, Frank Lowenstein, to replace Hale. Lowenstein served as Kerry’s senior adviser on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. There is complete trust between them and they work very well together. Lowenstein has visited Israel many times together with Kerry and knows Netanyahu and his advisers. “He knows Kerry very well and can get into his head when it comes to matters of state,” an American administration official said. “He’s a very creative person who can bring in a new, realistic approach based on what can and cannot be accomplished.”

What Lowenstein’s exact position will be is still unclear. Various American administration officials noted that Kerry was interested in dealing with the Israeli-Palestinian issue personally and carrying out shuttle diplomacy in the region himself. Therefore, it is likely that Lowenstein will be more a senior adviser on the peace process than a special envoy.

Other officials on Obama’s Middle East affairs team will be Prem Kumar, who is expected to hold the Israel portfolio in the White House – a position held in the past by U.S. Ambassador Dan Shapiro. Kumar, who served as Shapiro’s deputy in the White House, will be subordinate to Gordon and deal with the peace process as well as Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Egypt.

Other members of the team will include Ann Patterson, who apparently will be appointed as assistant secretary of state for Middle Eastern affairs. Patterson, who serves as the U.S. ambassador to Egypt and formerly as the ambassador to Pakistan, has played a major role in preserving the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt over the past two years, and in the rescue of the Israeli security guards who were under siege in the embassy in Cairo.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, center, walks with Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, as Kerry arrives in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, March 3, 2013.Credit: AP
Philip Gordon.Credit: AP
Benjamin Netanyahu, left, and Dennis Ross in Jerusalem, April 26, 1998. Credit: AP

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