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Policy breakthrough or breakdown? [Commentary]

Six months ago, President Barack Obama, speaking at the United Nations, stated that the three primary priorities for his administration were the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, Iran and Syria.

With visits this month from Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, continuing negotiations on a final nuclear agreement with Iran, and the apparent collapse of the U.S. attempt to work out a political settlement to the war in Syria last month, the time has come for a preliminary evaluation of U.S. policy in the three areas.

First, in the case of both the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran, the U.S. has undertaken a very activist policy. Secretary of State John Kerry has made numerous shuttle trips between Israelis and Palestinians, and the U.S. has taken the lead in working out a preliminary nuclear agreement with Iran and embarking on negotiations for a long-term agreement. Yet activism alone is no guarantee of success, and serious problems stand in the way of successful conclusions to the negotiations in each area.

As far as the Israelis and Palestinians are concerned, the two sides seem far apart on major issues. Among the discrepancies are: the length of time Israeli forces would remain along the Jordan River once a Palestinian State is established, Palestinian recognition of Israel as a Jewish state, Palestinian incitement against Israel and the status of Jerusalem — with Israeli construction of housing in East Jerusalem and the West Bank exacerbating relations. Perhaps the most the United States can hope for at this point is that both the Palestinian Authority and Israel would agree to Secretary Kerry's framework for negotiations while expressing their reservations to it. Whether such a dynamic will lead to serious negotiations to settle all the issues dividing the two sides is a very open question.

In the case of Iran, the U.S. gamble was, if anything greater. With the six month interim agreement, to end in July 2014, the U.S. has bought time to prevent an Israeli attack on Iran's nuclear facilities, but the issues dividing the U.S. and Iran are daunting. They range from the degree of uranium enrichment to be permitted to Iran, if any; the number and quality of Iranian centrifuges; the Arak heavy water facility that has the potential to produce plutonium; the Fordow underground nuclear facility; and Iran's willingness to reveal information about its suspected nuclear weapons program. Even if all these questions are settled to the satisfaction of the United States, issues such as Iran's support for terrorism, Syria and Hezbollah, as well as its opposition to Israel's existence, will remain and will make it difficult, if not impossible, to achieve the "grand bargain" with Iran that is hoped for by at least some in the Obama administration.

If the U.S. has been activist in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran, the absence of U.S. action in the case of Syria has been very evident. President Obama's unwillingness to get militarily involved in Syria has contributed to a situation in which more than 130,000 Syrians have been killed, millions of Syrians have been made into refugees, and jihadi groups linked to al-Qaida have developed bases in Syria. While the U.S. had pinned its hopes on a political settlement at the Geneva Conference with the help of Russia, those hopes seem to have been dashed last month. This has now led to a reevaluation of U.S. policy toward Syria, but whether the U.S. is now ready to become more militarily active in Syria, either by providing selected rebel groups with serious weaponry with which to combat the Assad regime, or the U.S. itself attacking some of the bases Assad is using to bombard his Syrian opponents, also remains a very open question.

In sum, neither U.S. activism in the case of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process and Iran nor U.S. inaction in the case of Syria has yet brought the results hoped for by the Obama administration. While U.S. policy in the Middle East has not yet broken down, except, perhaps in the case of Syria, the U.S. remains a long way from the breakthrough in the region that the Obama administration had hoped for.

Robert O. Freedman is Peggy Meyerhoff Pearlstone Professor Emeritus at Baltimore Hebrew University and is Visiting Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University. His most recent book is "Israel and the United States: Six Decades of US-Israeli Relations" (Westview Press). His email is rofreedman@comcast.net

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun
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