- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 11, 2009

UPDATED:

DUBAI, United Arab Emirates

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s first official trip to the Middle East left many Arabs convinced that she is more interested in repairing U.S. relations with Iran than in resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict.

“I don’t believe the Middle East is actually [President] Obama’s priority,” said Nader Saeed, a professor of sociology at the West Bank-based Birzeit University. “I believe East Asia and the axis of Afghanistan-Pakistan-Iran will be the stronger link in the chain.”

Last week, Mrs. Clinton proposed a multilateral conference on Afghanistan to which Iran would be invited, opening the prospect for direct U.S.-Iranian engagement. Tehran said it would study the invitation once it was received, but the reaction of Iranian academics suggested that the response would be favorable.



“Yes, I think Iran will attend the conference,” said Mohamed Sadeq Husseini, secretary-general of the Arab-Iranian Forum for Dialogue, a think tank based in Tehran.

He recalled the cooperation between the U.S. and Iran after the Sept. 11 attacks in forming a new government for Afghanistan, and he noted Iran’s opposition then to the Taliban.

Masha’allah Shams Al Waezeen - an analyst at Tehran’s Strategic Studies Center - said, “Of course, when there is a danger coming from the northeastern borders of Iran - meaning Afghanistan and Pakistan - against Iran’s national security, obviously Iran will help.”

Other issues on the U.S.-Iran agenda include Tehran’s nuclear program, which Iran says is for peaceful functions but Western and Arab nations fear has a military purpose, and Iraq, where Tehran has increased its influence since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Arab academics say the Obama administration is focusing on Iran because of bleak prospects for progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front. Israel is still putting together a new right-wing government after elections last month, and the Palestinians are split between Hamas in Gaza and Fatah in the West Bank.

“As far as the … situation between Israelis and Palestinians are concerned, things will take a longer time, particularly because there is a new element that can’t be ignored, which is [Israeli Prime Minister-designate Benjamin] Netanyahu,” said Dia Rashwan, a senior researcher at the Cairo-based Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies.

“The U.S. administration realizes this and will not put itself on a collision course with it.”

Mr. Saeed of Birzeit University said Palestinians appreciated Mrs. Clinton’s description of Israeli plans to demolish dozens of Palestinian houses in East Jerusalem as “unhelpful.” Israel says the homes were built illegally, while Palestinians say it is impossible to obtain permits to build legally.

Mrs. Clinton’s trip included a promise to follow up on the issue of Jewish settlement expansion in the West Bank once a new Israeli government is formed.

These statements have “partially regained the balance to the American policy in the region from a symbolic perspective; that was important,” Mr. Saeed said.

“Yet her visit was not sufficient at all, because Israel continues its policies without any fear from anybody.”

Uraib Rentawi, head of the Al Quds Research Center in Amman, Jordan, said, “I don’t think her visit carried anything new.”

He said Mrs. Clinton had not weighed in on crucial issues such as a new approach to Hamas, which the U.S. and Israel consider a terrorist group, or reopening the borders between Gaza and Egypt and Gaza and Israel.

“This is public relations,” he said. “There are visits, there are tours, there are explorations, but there are no concrete results that make us say there is progress.”

Arab complaints notwithstanding, Mrs. Clinton made a personal commitment to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, saying that finding a solution is “in my heart, not just my portfolio.”

She cited the persistent peacemaking efforts of her husband, former President Bill Clinton, and linked a solution to the future of Israeli and Palestinian children.

“I personally am very committed to this, and I know it can be done. I believe that with all my heart,” she told reporters at a donors conference for Gaza at the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el Sheik at the outset of her visit to the Middle East and Europe.

“To me, this is about what happens to the children in Gaza and the West Bank. I got into politics because I care deeply what happens to children,” Mrs. Clinton said.

Mrs. Clinton also indicated a more active approach toward Syria, sending two senior U.S. officials for talks in Damascus for the first time since 2005.

Thabet Salem, a veteran Syrian journalist, said a resumption of peace talks between Syria and Israel “depends on Israel’s commitment to what has been achieved” in previous rounds.

He said that he doubted Syria would be willing to sign a peace deal before the Palestinians.

“It is either reaching a deal with all parties or no deal,” he said.

Syrian President Bashar Assad made a similar comment in an interview this week.

• Jumana al-Tamimi is associate editor at the Gulf News newspaper, published in Dubai.

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