As President Barack Obama begins his second term, he faces a series of Middle East challenges far more daunting than when he began his presidency in 2009. These problems include:
•what to do about the Arab-Israeli conflict, with peace talks between Israel and the Palestinian Authority still frozen;
•whether to intervene in the civil war in Syria, which has now claimed more than 60,000 lives, with the opposition to the Assad regime becoming more Islamist;
•how to manage relations with an increasingly Islamist regime in Egypt in such a way that the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty is not endangered;
•how to handle an Iraq on the verge of multiple civil wars, one between the Arabs and the Kurds and the other between Sunnis and Shiites;
•how to deal with al-Qaida activity in both Yemen and North Africa (Mali and Algeria);
•and whether to attack Iran as it moves ever closer to acquiring a nuclear weapons capability.
Of all of these concerns, the Arab-Israeli conflict poses the most immediate challenges to the president and new Secretary of State John Kerry.
When he examines the Arab-Israeli conflict, President Obama faces two basic problems: the attitude of the new Israeli government toward continued settlement construction (particularly in the E-1 corridor between the Jewish West Bank city of Maaleh Adumim and East Jerusalem); and Hamas' continuing unwillingness to recognize Israel and agree to stop using violence against it. Following the recent Israeli elections, where Likud and its allied right-wing party did much worse than expected, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu faces the task of forming a new government. Mr. Netanyahu has two choices. First, he can put together a right-wing government composed of Likud-Betainu (31 seats), Jewish Home (12) Shas (11) and United Torah Judaism (7) to form a narrow majority government of 61 seats in the 120-member parliament, the Knesset. Such a government could be expected to continue the policy of Mr. Netanyahu's last government of settlement construction, limiting civil rights and further isolating Israel in the world.
If the settlement policy included the construction of housing and other Israeli buildings in the E-1 corridor, this is likely to create an immediate crisis with the Obama administration, as such construction would effectively cut the West bank into two parts, forcing Palestinian Arabs living in such cities as Bethlehem and Hebron to travel far out of their way to get to the Palestinian cities of Ramallah, Nablus and Jenin. While, as has been argued, tunnels could be built connecting Bethlehem and Ramallah to facilitate Palestinian traffic, Mr. Netanyahu has not volunteered to build the tunnels, and the cash-strapped Palestinian Authority does not have the funds to do so. If the E-1 corridor is built, the West Bank will be psychologically split in two, making a viable Palestinian state there almost impossible to create. This will cause a rift with the White House at a time when Israel needs American support to deal with Iran's growing nuclear threat.
Perhaps mindful of this problem, Mr. Netanyahu may opt to create a more centrist government, adding Yair Lapid's new Yesh Atid ("There is a future"), with its 19 seats; Tzipi Livni's Ha'Tnuah (6 seats) and either Shas or United Torah Judaism to get his majority. Such a government, which would exclude the right-wing, pro-settlement Jewish Home party of Naftali Bennett, would most certainly not move ahead with the E-1 project, thus preserving ties with the Obama administration.
But even if Mr. Netanyahu makes the more moderate choice, the prospect of an Arab-Israeli peace agreement is still far away. This is primarily because of the rise in influence of Hamas, both in Gaza and on the West Bank, after its short war with Israel in November. By not sending the Israeli army into Gaza to end the rocket firing once and for all, and by making concessions to Hamas to gain the cease-fire, Mr. Netanyahu allowed Hamas to claim victory. The war may have been an attempt by Mr. Netanyahu to divert the attention of the Israeli electorate from Israel's serious socioeconomic problems to security issues; if so, the effort was not very successful, and the end result was more influence for Hamas. Should new Palestinian elections be held, Hamas could again emerge victorious, as it did 2006. This would be a near-fatal blow to the peace process, as Hamas has not renounced its charter calling for Israel's destruction.
Given these circumstances, President Obama should use his influence with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to prevent any Palestinian election until Hamas first renounces terrorism and revokes its charter. Whether Mr. Obama has sufficient influence with Mr. Abbas, however, remains to be seen, given the recent clash between the U.S. and the Palestinian Authority over the latter's efforts to enhance its status at the United Nations.
Mr. Obama will make his first presidential visit to Israel next month, and Secretary Kerry has spoken of bringing new attention to the Arab-Israeli conflict. Nevertheless, just like many of their predecessors, they will likely find the solution to be elusive.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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