- The Washington Times - Friday, January 16, 2009



As Gaza continues to explode, every day offering up handfuls of unfathomable new dangers, one of our finest specialists on the Middle East outlined for the new administration a provocative new strategical approach to the region.

“[President-elect Barack Obama] needs to connect the dots,” the former U.S. ambassador to Israel and Syria, Edward Djerejian, advised. “But he needs not just to put out fires; he needs to chart out a comprehensive strategy - from the Maghreb to Southeast Asia. The issues are all connected, but U.S. leaders have not had the wisdom to put them together and chart them out.”

We are in the midst of a “struggle between the forces of radicalism and moderation,” he went on, reflecting the views outlined in his new book, “Danger and Opportunity: An American Ambassador’s Journey Through the Middle East.” In the end, we need to move “from conflict management to conflict resolution.”

Until now, our relations with the region have been, by and large, country-to-country. America-to-Iran. America-to- Afghanistan. America-to-Egypt. And, of course, always, Israel. But this idea of a larger, comprehensive approach is beginning to take form.

Secretary of State-nominee Hillary Clinton has spoken of a series of interlocking problems, and even the president-elect has said several times in the last week he will “engage immediately” in the situation and, in a news conference, “not only in the short-term situation but building a process whereby we can achieve a more lasting peace in the region.” Those are, in fact, a repetition of the two themes that the Obama campaign so effectively stressed for the last two years - “change” and “unity.”

But there is something strange here. For at the same time that the president-elect has stressed “change, change, change,” he has inexplicably been creating an administration of men and women who impassionedly represent the old order!

In fact, many of them have, for many years, been perceived in the area as representing anti-Arab and anti-Iranian positions while holding high offices in the State Department and elsewhere, thus offering little hope for any immediate Arab and Iranian interest in Obama initiatives.

The president-elect only last week named Dennis Ross to coordinate policy toward Iran, which is of course a major position. But while Mr. Ross is unquestionably a talented diplomat, having worked the impossible job of trying to negotiate Middle East peace during the Clinton administration, he now comes directly out of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, an unequivocally pro-Israeli think-tank.

The Washington Times, in a report from Tehran this week, explained these attitudes, quoting the hard-line Iranian newspaper Keyhan as already labeling Mr. Ross “a Zionist lobbyist in the U.S. administration.”

In addition, Hillary Clinton herself said during the campaign that Iran should be “obliterated” if it attacked Israel. And Mr. Obama’s Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel is descended from a family of the radical-right Irgun terrorists in Israel and himself chose to fight in the 1991 Gulf war with the Israeli army.

Thus, before the struggle for negotiation even begins, the options are stacked against the new president, and the newness he supposedly brings to old questions is already compromised, all of which one would think a new president might choose to avoid.

Many here in Washington wonder why he has repeatedly fallen back on the old Clinton-era diplomats and officials when he could pick virtually anyone.

Here comes the crunch: It appears that, in many cases, he has met his appointees only recently and spent only a few hours with them before offering them plum assignments. While he has been surrounded by people amazingly talented at running a campaign, there do not seem to be among them people with enough experience to run a government. Or at least, that is implicitly what he is saying with his appointments.

The more one looks at this tragic situation in Gaza, where Israel responded to Hamas attacks by invading not even to gain ground this time but only (from the statements of leading Israeli politicians) to somehow keep the radical Hamas off-balance, one sees more important changes occurring behind the scenes that may already have decided the questions Mr. Obama says he wants to solve.

Until now, whenever the region came close to an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, there was only one paradigm: the “two-state solution” - two independent states, Israel and Palestine, coexisting on that small piece of land. But now, across the region, that paradigm is changing.

Ironically, it is the two countries with workable peace treaties with Israel, Jordan and Egypt, that are most worried. They are seeing a scenario where, in essence, Gaza would go to Egypt and the West Bank would go to Jordan, thus putting both moderate Arab countries in the impossible position of having to police the borders with Israel.

Since the Gaza attacks, both Egypt and Jordan have, with greater intensity than ever, seen arrayed against them a radical grouping of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah and Hamas. If this goes much further, the famous two-state solution will soon be dead. And so will be the American president-elect’s “new approach.”

The words are good; the intentions behind them are even better. But Barack Obama is going to have a tough time with bringing his beloved “change” to Washington and the world when everything is looking so very much the same.

Georgie Anne Geyer is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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