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Obama’s New Foreign Policy Team Looks Toward Syria

Washington — Breaking with the Bush administration, the incoming foreign policy team of President-elect Barack Obama is expected to embrace Israeli–Syrian peace talks and might actively take part in negotiations that until now the Americans have shunned.

This assessment is shared by Middle East experts trying to gauge the foreign policy priorities of the incoming administration based on statements from the transition team. The negotiations on an accord between Israel and Syria would run parallel to efforts to secure a peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.

Obama himself indicated he would take on the Israeli–Palestinian peacemaking task, mentioning the conflict as one of four foreign policy goals when he introduced Hillary Rodham Clinton as his pick for Secretary of State.

“We were hoping to get an indication that he will do this and he gave us the signal in his speech,” said Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, one of many Middle East players in Washington seeking the attention of the new administration.

Most Middle East experts and foreign diplomats are still unclear about Obama’s foreign policy plans. His transition team and advisers strictly refrain from engaging with foreign representatives, sticking to the principle set by Obama that “there is only one president in Washington.”

The transition team also adheres to the same tightly controlled practice, set during the campaign, to avoid leaks. “Those who know don’t talk and those who talk don’t know,” said a Middle East activist when describing his attempts to gain some insight into the next president’s moves.

Talks on the Israeli–Syrian track have been conducted for over a year under the auspices of the Turkish government. The Bush administration initially opposed the negotiations fearing they would provide Damascus with an excuse not to act on issues relating to its involvement in Iraq and its support for terror groups. The United States later withdrew its opposition, but Americans were never involved actively in the talks.

Obama has said during the campaign that he would support peace talks between the two countries, although it is still unclear what shape the American involvement will take.

The call for promoting the Israeli–Syrian track is among several key recommendations in an extensive report compiled by two leading think tanks in Washington. The report, “Restoring the Balance: A Middle East Strategy for the Next President” was prepared by the Council on Foreign Relations and the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution and calls for a robust diplomatic effort by Obama to include three parallel tracks: talks with Iran; promoting Israeli–Palestinian peace, and supporting the Israeli–Syrian talks.

“The Syrian track represents an opportunity that the Obama administration should develop,” said Martin Indyk, director of the Saban Center. “We do not advocate a ‘Syria first’ approach, but a ‘Syria also’ approach.”

In the past, Palestinians have been concerned about promoting the Syria track, fearing it would distract Israelis and Americans from their issue, but this opposition has now weakened since reaching out to Syria is seen as beneficial to moderate Palestinians. “Peace with Syria can accelerate the Israeli–Palestinian peace track if it is done in the right way,” said Asali of the pro-Palestinian group. He stressed that if an agreement would include an end to Syrian support of the Hamas, it would strengthen the Palestinian leadership that is seeking a two-state solution.

Dealing with the Israeli–Palestinian front may turn out to be the most difficult challenge for Obama’s new team. Many believe that conditions are not ripe, with Israeli elections scheduled for February and continued Palestinian friction between Hamas-ruled Gaza and the West Bank, governed by Fatah. But Obama doesn’t seem to share this view. He he vowed during the campaign to take on Israeli–Palestinian peacemaking “from day one.”

“So far, all indications are that he is doing exactly what he said he promised,” said a Washington insider with close ties to Obama’s team.

One of the plans being revisited is the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002 that calls on full normalization of ties between the Arab world and Israel in return for a two-state solution. An Arab diplomat told the Forward that Arab leaders are now preparing a letter to Obama in which they will urge him to adopt the plan and move promptly toward a final status solution to the conflict. The diplomat did not rule out the possibility that Arab states will agree to move faster toward normalizing ties with Israel if they feel the new administration in Washington is taking serious steps to solve the Palestinian problem.

Whether the new administration should push for a truce among Palestinians also was debated this week in Washington. Middle East scholar Shibley Telhami argued that it should be a priority. “You cannot move forward as long as the Palestinians remain divided and there is violence,” said Telhami, the Anwar Sadat chair for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland. Telhami was one of the contributors to the report dealing with recommendations for the next administration.

In the meantime, Maen Areikat, a senior Palestinian negotiator, said that Fatah is prepared to establish an independent state in the West Bank instead of waiting for moderates to retake control in Gaza. While visiting the capital, Areikat told the Washington Times that while his group prefers reaching an agreement with Hamas, “the PLO is mandated to continue negotiations” on its own.

The future of American involvement in the process will also be affected by Obama’s nominations to the remaining top foreign policy posts, including the special envoy to the region. Speculation is abundant. Dennis Ross, the veteran peace negotiator and an early Obama backer, was seen as the leading candidate for the post, although now his chances seem to have dimmed since he is seeking a broader Middle East portfolio. Another front-runner is former ambassador Dan Kurtzer, who has taken a critical view of peacemaking efforts by Ross in a book he published last year. Washington sources also said Martin Indyk has a chance of filling the post of a senior envoy and that his close ties to the Clintons might improve his chances with the new secretary of state.

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