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Kerry fiddles with Israeli-Palestinian conflict while rest of region burns

One can only applaud the restarting of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, which controls the West Bank. Yet, given the other problems the United States currently faces in the Middle East — crises in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, to mention only the most obvious ones — it is an open question as to whether Secretary of State John Kerry should have spent so much time on Israel-Palestinian peace talks, having visited the area no fewer than six times in the first six months following his appointment, while the U.S. has let the other problems in the region worsen.

To be sure, if the current peace talks bear fruit in the form of an agreement, and if Hamas, which controls Gaza, signs on to it (a very, very big if), then the U.S. position in the Middle East will be greatly strengthened. From the U.S. perspective, an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement would weaken the position of Islamists who constantly go after the U.S. because of its support of Israel. It would also strengthen the position of the United States' Arab allies, such as Jordan and the Gulf Arab states, who are vulnerable to the criticism of their domestic opponents — primarily but not exclusively Islamists — over their governments' alignment with the United States while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict festers.

An agreement would also strengthen the position of Israel, so long as proper security safeguards are enacted in the peace treaty, as it will no longer have to face the dilemma of choosing between being a Jewish state and a democratic state, and it would avoid the danger of becoming an Apartheid state should there one day be more Arabs than Jews under Israeli control.

Nonetheless, the prospects for more than another Israeli-Palestinian interim agreement are limited indeed, and as the situation worsens in Egypt, Syria and Iraq, one has to wonder why Mr. Kerry did not spend more time working on these problems. In Egypt, the U.S. first backed former Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi despite his increasingly dictatorial actions, his incompetent handling of the Egyptian economy, and his toleration of attacks on Egyptian Christians. Indeed, when the U.S. publicly announced a multimillion-dollar grant to Egypt during Mr. Kerry's visit there several months ago, the Egyptian opposition, most of whom refused to meet with Mr. Kerry, complained that just as the U.S. had backed the dictator Hosni Mubarak, it was now backing the dictator Mr. Morsi.

Then, when Mr. Morsi was overthrown by the Egyptian military after massive public protests against him, the U.S. failed to call the military's action a coup d'etat, lest it be compelled to cut off military aid, thereby damaging relations with Egypt's new military leaders. While the U.S. has called for speedy elections, the writing of a new constitution in Egypt and the inclusion of Islamists in the political process, it remains to be seen whether the U.S. has any influence left in a country where both the pro- and anti-Morsi forces have publicly castigated the U.S. for its policy in Egypt. Indeed, the recently failed mediation mission of Senators Lindsey Graham and John McCain reflects the weakness of the U.S. position in Egypt.

In Syria the situation is even worse. The U.S., after delaying intervention in a civil war that has already cost more than 100,000 lives, recently agreed to provide aid to the Syrian opposition, but it appears to be a matter of too little and too late. By now the Assad regime is very much on the offensive, with assistance from Hezbollah and Iran — enemies of the U.S. — as well as from Russia and China, who are America's competitors in the Middle East. At the same time, the Syrian opposition is badly divided, and Islamists have come to the fore as a major force within the opposition and are now the main strike force against the Assad regime's positions.

The U.S., by delaying military support, has all but lost influence within the Syrian opposition, which in any case it failed to unite against Mr. Assad. Had Mr. Kerry (and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton before him) spent more time on the Syrian issue, and had President Barack Obama been willing to supply arms to non-Islamist opposition forces a year ago, the U.S. position in Syria would have been far better.

Finally, there is the problem of Iraq. With the U.S. having pulled its forces out of that country several years ago, it has all but lost influence there — just at a time when Iraq is facing not one but two civil wars. The first, already under way, pits the 20 percent Sunni minority in the country against the Shiite majority of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who has all but excluded Sunnis from positions of power within his government (despite promises to the contrary). The other civil war, which is rapidly approaching, is between Iraq's Kurds and the rest of the country, as the Kurds wish to maximize their autonomy — and their control of the oil fields in their region in northern Iraq — while the Maliki government has given little indication of concessions on the issue. Here again, had the U.S. paid more attention to this issue, it might not have deteriorated so badly.

In sum, while Secretary Kerry's efforts at achieving an Israeli-Palestinian settlement are admirable, the Obama administration's neglect of other critical Middle Eastern issues may, in the long run, cost the U.S. more to its Middle Eastern position than an agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority will achieve.

Robert O. Freedman is visiting professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone professor of political science emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University. His most recent book is "Israel And The United States: Six Decades Of Relations." His email is rofreedman@comcast.net.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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