It is an Obama revolution that has gone by virtually unremarked.
In the space of one week, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton have knocked down no fewer than five long-standing pillars of American foreign policy from the Bush years and earlier, leaving Israel and other countries affected to confront a transformed world of diplomacy.
Between March 2 and March 7, the Obama administration:
• Sent two senior envoys to Damascus for high-level negotiations with Syria, ending Washington’s years-long effort to isolate the country.
• Announced its intention to invite Iran as a full partner to multilateral talks on Afghanistan in late March, signaling a new line of communication with the country at the very center of former president George W. Bush’s — and Israel’s — axis of evil.
• Responded favorably to an offer from Turkey to mediate contacts between Washington and Tehran.
• Voiced supportive interest in Great Britain’s decision — on the heels of consultations between Obama and British Prime Minister Gordon Brown — to open up a dialogue with the political wing of Hezbollah in Lebanon, long denounced by Washington and Jerusalem as a terrorist group and cat’s paw of Iran.
• Discussed its readiness to negotiate with elements of the Taliban in Afghanistan, the group that sheltered Osama bin Laden as he planned the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center and following the attack.
• Signaled to Russia America’s willingness to pull back on a missile defense system in Eastern Europe that the Kremlin has long bitterly opposed — if Moscow were to assist Washington in stopping a perceived nuclear threat from Iran.
It was a tour de force that breached red lines against dealing with those deemed terrorists or terrorist supporters that pro-Israel advocates had long maintained under the protective black-and-white umbrella of the preceding Bush administration. Yet mainstream Jewish reaction has been muted, in part, perhaps, out of a reluctance to break with the new administration.
Jewish leaders also perceive that almost all these actions include among their goals an effort to weave a new and intricate web around Iran, seen as a primary strategic, even existential, threat to Israel. They appear prepared to give the administration’s new approach some time, albeit a limited amount.
Nevertheless, the break with Bush’s sweeping binary diplomacy suggests that Israel and its supporters are confronting a new, more complex world of realpolitik, one in which the Jewish state may be called upon to choose difficult trade-offs involving other priorities as a price for achieving its declared goals on Iran.
“There are dots to be connected here,” said the American Jewish Committee’s executive director, David Harris, who perceived “a complex matrix of parallel goals” in Washington’s actions.
“The common denominator seems to be an attempt to explore new possibilities for engagement,” he said.
“The goal with Syria is to see if a wedge can be driven between Syria and Iran. A parallel goal is to see if Syrian-Israeli negotiations are ripe,” Harris said.
With the expected ascension to leadership in Israel of hawkish Likud party chief Benjamin Netanyahu, there “might even be an expectation that… the chances for a Syrian deal are increased because he’s more skeptical about the chances of success on the Palestinian front,” he explained.
The outreach to Russia is also two-pronged, Harris said. “One goal is to increase leverage on Iran and perhaps corner Iran. The other is to create a new model for managing relations with Russia, even if the administration decides it has to postpone or downgrade the interests of smaller nations for the larger goal.” Harris pointed to Poland and Georgia as examples of smaller nations that might suffer, adding that he did not believe Israel faced that possibility.
The flurry of initiatives came so rapidly, and on such widely disparate fronts, that the overall strategy — if that’s what it was — was visible only afterward. To some, the British opening toward Hezbollah on the heels of Brown’s meetings with Obama was especially intriguing.
“It strains credulity to think there’s no connection,” said Middle East scholar Steven Spiegel of the University of California, Los Angeles. “It’s all part of a natural tendency among Democrats to pursue a global policy of engagement with enemies. Don’t be surprised if somebody eventually starts playing with Hamas. The Americans will maintain deniability, but you’re going to see gradual changes.”
The search for a new Iran strategy comes against a backdrop of mounting concern that Iran is almost ready to assemble a nuclear bomb.
On March 1, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, U.S. Navy admiral Michael Mullen, told CNN that Iran had enough processed uranium to make such a bomb. A week later, the Israeli chief of military intelligence, Amos Yadlin, echoed Mullen’s view. Israeli intelligence experts say Iran could have a working bomb in 18 months, though some senior defense officials in both countries claim the danger is less imminent.
Washington and its European allies have been trying for years to stop Iran’s uranium enrichment efforts. Iranian success, the Western allies fear, will enable the Islamic Republic to develop a nuclear arsenal that would destabilize the Middle East, weaken moderate Arab regimes and threaten Israel’s existence. The Bush administration sought to isolate Iran with diplomatic and trade sanctions, while tacitly supporting European efforts to negotiate with Tehran. But so far, Iran has defied international demands to halt the work, insisting it seeks nuclear power for civilian and not military purposes.
Key Arab regimes share Israel’s concerns. As recently as March 3, the Saudi foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, publicly urged Arab nations to join forces against Iran’s threats to the region. On March 6, Morocco severed diplomatic relations with Iran, protesting an Iranian statement that seemed to claim neighboring Arab Bahrain as Iran’s “14th province.”
But to fully enable this nascent coalition, Israel may also at some point be pressured to help defuse the Palestinian issue. Its persistence remains a bone in the throat of Arab public opinion that makes it difficult for many Arab governments to be seen acting with Jerusalem and its primary backer, the United States, against Tehran, the Palestinians’ outspoken defender.
So far, Israel and its advocates here appear to be watching the new administration’s rapid diplomatic footwork with anxiety, but they are holding their fire. The British outreach to Hezbollah has generated particular concern.
“If there is a move on the part of our allies to engage with terrorist organizations while they remain terrorist organizations, that will raise concerns within our community,” said Martin Raffel, senior associate director of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.
Israel weighed in during Clinton’s visit there March 3. The secretary of state was handed a document listing Israel’s so-called red lines in the process. According to a report in Haaretz, they include a demand for tougher sanctions against Iran prior to opening talks with it, a game plan for action if talks fail, and a strict time limit to those talks so that Iran cannot use negotiations to buy time and complete assemblage of a bomb.
A more detailed proposal was published March 9 by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, with recommendations for tighter coordination with partners, including Russia and China, and a timeline similar to Israel’s. The report’s signatories include Dennis Ross, who was a fellow at the institute while the report was drafted but is now the State Department’s senior envoy for Iran policy. His signature gives the report considerable weight.
Little may happen until Iran’s presidential election determines the fate of its militantly anti-Western president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. But Spiegel said, “Things will really heat up on the diplomatic front after June 12.”
Jonathan Jeremy “J.J.” Goldberg is editor-at-large of the Forward, where he served as editor in chief for seven years (2000-2007).