President Obama’s trip to the Middle East came at an interesting juncture. Netanyahu just appointed a new cabinet and Obama himself started his second term in January. According to most experts, the visit provided a good opportunity for both leaders to reset their ties that had not been so cordial lately.
However, the issues that have caused tension between their ties remain. While there was no breakthrough on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict during the visit, surprisingly, Netanyahu offered the apology Turkey had demanded of Israel for the Mavi Marmara incident in 2010. The development was a result of consistent American behind the scenes diplomacy and is indicative of the approach the US may have adopted towards the solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
US And Political Approach To Conflicts
From the get-go, President Obama has displayed signs his second term is not going to be the same as the previous one. Fiscal pressures are driving some of these changes, but others have to do with attempts to create a legacy and the absence of the pressures connected with reelection.
The selection of John Kerry as the Secretary of Sate and Chuck Hagel as the Secretary of Defense is reflective of the sea change in the future direction of US policy. This transformation is a direct result of the long drawn out preoccupation with the global war on terror. While immediately after 9/11, the country was driven by vengeance and military operations. More than a decade later, a more realistic assessment of what the threats are and what can be done about them, is settling in. A recent report from the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board has reportedly warned that excessive focus on Al Qaeda has created blind spots for the country.
In this context, the shift towards political approach comes across to many as being compromising or giving in. The reality is different. When one talks of political emphasis, it does not necessarily mean giving up the national interests. It just stresses on diplomacy, as oppose to military means, in achieving those interests. In some instances, however, fiscal restraints are forcing the prioritization of the security threats and interests.
The new approach was amply on display during President Obama’s Middle East trip, in how his administration is approaching the Iran crisis, Syria, and the Israel-Palestinian conflict. While Israel has consistently pressured the US to take a military route towards Iran, US has wanted more time for diplomacy and sanctions to work. Both countries have differed on the time factor; specifically on the question of how long does Iran have before it acquires nuclear weapons.
At a deeper level, facts on the ground give more credence to the scenario that the US is working on a fundamental change in the landscape of Middle East. The essential elements of this alteration first involve regime change in Syria, causing further isolation of its key ally, Iran. By default, this transformation will also weaken Hezbollah and Hamas that have supported military solution to the Israel-Palestinian conflict and question the very existence of Israel.
Where Does Turkey Figure In?
While the Gulf monarchs are apparently on board with this vision, Mavi Marmara incident had put a dent in the Turkey-Israel relations, which also complicated NATO and Israeli coordination. These tensions made it difficult to jointly deal with the situation in Syria and the risk posed by its chemical weapons. Not only that, as recently pointed out by PoliTact, because of Israeli actions, the US and Turkey relations were also deteriorating to such an extent that PM Erdogan commented on January 25th, “If we get into the SCO, we will say goodbye to the EU. The SCO is better — much more powerful. Pakistan wants in, India wants in as well. If the SCO wants us, we will become members of this organization.”
In essence, Turkey is critical for the above-mentioned soft solution to work in the Middle East. The announcement of rapprochement between Israel and Turkey during President Obama’s visit shows where the emphasis of the American approach lies. Moreover, it also requires Israel’s acquiescence to not strike Iran, which it has complied with despite the bellicose rhetoric.
The Russian Factor
Another key component of this solution involves Russian agreement, a key player in the Middle East. And, US has given a big indication of how it intends to achieve that; by dramatically announcing it is giving up the European component of its Missile Defense System. This was one of the key challenges in the way of US-Russia reset. While the enormous decision was met by a measured initial Russian response, it could change the nation’s posture towards both Syria and Iran.
On the other hand, Iran is not sitting around and waiting. It has moved its own diplomacy in high gear. For example, Iranian President Ahmadinejad made a historic visit to Egypt in February, which was the first since the 1979 Iranian revolution. Despites sanctions, Iran also offered aid to Egypt.
“I have said previously that we can offer a big credit line to the Egyptian brothers, and many services,” Ahmadinejad stated in an interview to al-Ahram.
The visit was watched with extreme interest in the Arab and Western world. Iran is also improving its economic ties with Pakistan. Agreement on the Pakistan-Iran gas pipeline project and the decision to develop a refinery at the Gwadar port goes along these lines.
Israeli apology to Turkey will move the country in the same pool as other Gulf nations. With the change in the political landscape of Middle East, as discussed above, the resolution of the Israeli-Palestine conflict will become much easier and without the need for military intervention. If the Russian’s decide to cooperate more on Syria and Iran, this will only increase the pressure on China. This is perhaps is the reason why the new Chinese President Xi Jinping decided to go to Russia on his very first visit abroad.