As the Mideast Burns, Who Cares About Israel and the Palestinians?

While Syria is up in arms and Egyptians voice reluctance to preserve a decades-old peace treaty with Israel, both Israel and the U.S. are struggling to propose a peace plan that will bring convince the Palestinians to talk.

In the past few months, we haven’t heard much about the “full peace agreement within one year” that the United States administration was hopeful to achieve back in summer 2010.

The very prospect that the United Nations may recognize the Palestinian State in September places pressure on U.S. President Barack Obama to preempt a situation such as could occur if the U.S. refused to recognize the Palestinian State, which may seem to the international community and the Arab world as much worse than its vetoing the UN Security Council resolution condemning Israel's settlement activity.

U.S. President Barack Obama

The growing uncertainty along almost all of the Israel’s borders in light of the unrest surging in the Arab world makes it difficult for the Israeli government to propose a plan.

Moreover, the annual AIPAC conference at the end of May makes it unlikely that the Obama administration will present its own peace initiative.

Several U.S. officials repeated over the past two years that they were against imposing a solution (AIPAC obviously won’t support the idea either), and Obama is already busy with the fundraisers ahead of the 2012 presidential elections.

On April 12, at the Gala Dinner Celebrating the U.S.-Islamic World Forum, U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said that “the President will be speaking in greater detail about America’s policy in the Middle East and North Africa in the coming weeks”.

The following day, Deputy State Department spokesman Mark Toner explained what Clinton actually meant, saying “it's not necessarily a new push but rather a redoubling of our efforts”.

Now, White House spokesman Jay Carney while asked yesterday by reporters whether Obama was ready to give his Middle East policy speech, answered: “I don’t have a scheduling update for you on possible remarks the President may give. I mean, he has spoken quite a bit about the region, the Arab Spring that we’ve seen, and I’m sure he will continue to do so. But I don’t have a date for you.”

As for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas – he obviously feels he doesn’t have much to lose criticizing the Obama administration’s conduct vis-à-vis the Palestinians in a lengthy article published in Newsweek.

Special Envoy Mitchell did not convey the Palestinians’ “ideas” to the Israelis (a statement which the White House denies); and insisting on the complete settlements’ freeze that was responsible for much of the bad blood in the lame attempts to re-launch the direct negotiations, was President Obama’s idea.

“It was Obama who suggested a full settlement freeze. I said Okay, I accept. We both went up the tree. After that, he came down with a ladder and he removed the ladder and said to me, jump. Three times he did it”, Abbas said.

As if it wasn’t enough to anger the overstretched and frustrated staff at the West Wing, the Palestinian leader also claimed that during their February phone conversation (the US President tried to convince Abbas to prevent the UN Security Council vote on the settlements’ resolution) Obama threatened with “sanctions” in the case that he would not comply.

As expected, this argument was defined by the National Security Council spokesman as a misinterpretation.

Meanwhile, the cautious Israeli approach towards the “Arab spring”, based on the premise that new governments reflecting their public opinion won’t necessarily make them friendly to Israel, is somewhat affirmed in the new Pew Research Center poll. It shows that while the Egyptians embrace democracy (54% support full democracy, even at the risk of losing some political stability, while 32% prefer stability, even if it means less democratic government), but do not haste to embrace Israel (54% ant the peace treaty with Israel annulled, as opposed to 36% who would rather keep it).

The White House is pondering tightening sanctions against Syria, targeting the top regime’s officials responsible for the crackdown against the protesters. It can’t have much impact unless Europe will follow the lead – but it could symbolize the reluctant Obama administration’s farewell to the engagement doctrine with rogue regimes.

But will it? The U.S. Ambassador Robert Ford,  who was sent to Damascus less than half a year ago after more than 5 years of diplomatic “punishment,” is still in Syria.

Jay Carney once again presented the old argument that “having an ambassador in Syria has allowed us to make our views known directly and not via long distance”. In the age of mass telecommunications, and given the fact that it’s unclear how welcome Ford actually is in Assad’s palace these days, it’s not that convincing.

A new travel warning for Syria issued yesterday by the State Department can give some clue to the the level of the Syrians’ cooperation with the US Embassy: “Contrary to the terms of the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, of which Syria is a signatory, Syrian authorities generally do not notify the U.S. Embassy of the arrest of a U.S. citizen until days or weeks after the arrest. Moreover, in the past, security officials have not responded to Embassy requests for consular access, especially in the case of persons detained for “security” reasons”

As for the sanctions, asked whether the U.S. president reached out to European allies, the White House spokesman replied: “We speak with our allies all the time about the situation in the region, in other countries as well as Syria. But I have no specific announcement to make about discussions with our allies. I’m not going to dictate to other countries from here what they should or shouldn’t do. What I will say is that we are very concerned about it, as I think many others countries are, and we are looking at a variety of options, a range of options, including targeted sanctions, more targeted sanctions aimed at the Syrian government”.

And for those wondering where did Iran disappear amid all these crises, besides benefitting from the oil prices following ensuing unrest in Libya – U.S officials, like the Israeli government, continue to stress that the issue has not been forgotten. This as U.S. critics claim that two consequent American administrations, George W. Bush and Obama, have made Iran stronger.

Last Thursday, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Susan Rice spoke in length about the urgency regarding Israeli-Palestinian peace, and rejected the legitimacy of settlements. She also called before the UN Security Council to reject the Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead – and yes, she mentioned Iran.

“We strongly condemn Iran’s recent attempts to export advanced weapons and munitions in violation of several Security Council resolutions”, she said. “The interception of Iranian weapons in Turkey, along the Egyptian-Sudanese border, and aboard the M/V Victoria, which was carrying sophisticated anti-ship cruise missiles and other munitions, all clearly demonstrate that Iran is trying to flout this Council’s will—dramatically increasing the risks of conflict and instability in the region. We urge all member states to make clear to Iran the consequences for regional security of its reckless behavior”.

But if you thought that the Arab cache of diplomatic cables exposed by WikiLeaks convinced the world that Iran, and not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is the core of Middle East problems – you are wrong.

The papers caused and continue to cause an awful headache for the Obama Administration – while the expectation that it may change the rules of the game, at least in the Middle East, has been refuted.

Middle East leaders prefer to stick to the old narrative. Two small examples - the Qatari Emir Hamad Bin Khalifa Al Thani, following his meeting with Obama in April, after they discussed the unrest in the Middle Eastern - said: "Of course, the most important issue in the region is the Palestine-Israeli conflict and how to find a way to establish a Palestinian state”.

A week later, Turkish President Abdullah Gul wrote a column in the New York Times, saying that the Arab-Israeli peace agreement will decide whether the recent revolutions shaking the region will lead to democracy and peace or tyranny and conflict." He called the plight of the Palestinians “a root cause of unrest and conflict in the region and is being used as a pretext for extremism in other corners of the world.”

So far, we remain the link.