The Shaping of U.S. Foreign Policy in the Middle East
COMMENTARY By Sarah Ann Haves
FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE, Jerusalem, Israel
As Americans decide who they will vote for in the November 2008 elections, Israelis stand by, wondering what kind of Middle East policy will be shaped by the next president to enter the White House. Will the next U.S. president put greater pressure on Israel to stop settlement construction not only in the West Bank (Judea and Samaria), but also in Jerusalem? Will he expect Israel to concede to the Palestinian demand of a divided Jerusalem, and shared rule over the city? Will he push for a final agreement between Israel and the Palestinians during his term in office?
INTERFERENCE IN THE PROCESS
The U.S. presidential candidates are well known: Democratic leader, Barack Obama, and Republican leader, John McCain. While one candidate is going from left to center to try and win the hearts of a majority of voters in America, the other is going from right to center to try and reach those citizens who have not yet made a decision on who they will vote for. What is little known about these two men is where they stand, and how different their approach is to U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East, especially concerning Israel.
Whether they will follow in the footsteps of U.S. President George W. Bush or not, remains to be seen. Bush spent very little time in his first seven years in office taking an active role in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. But, during this last year, like his predecessor former President Bill Clinton, Bush has became much more engaged in the process, to the point that some here feel he has gone too far.
Despite widespread skepticism throughout this region, Bush and U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice insisted on creating a new Middle East strategy that focused on dates and times for a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians. They both actively worked for such an agreement that they felt could be implemented before the end of the Bush Administration.
Pushing for a resolve to the conflict after many years of violent uprisings in the Middle East, the White House and the State Department hosted the U.S. Annapolis Conference in November 2007, bringing together Arab and Israeli leaders to sit side by side. The promise was that Israel and the Palestinians would set up working groups after the conference, and establish an agreement that could be extended to other Arab nations. The long-term expression of “land for peace” became reversed by the Bush Administration. Bush was the first president to expect Arab leaders to meet with Israeli leaders and discuss the notion of a comprehensive peace before discussing land withdrawals.
After Annapolis, Israeli and Palestinian leaders met frequently. But, so far the results have been disappointing, and more emphasis has been put on the process rather than on actual achievements. Furthermore, U.S. expectations have been idealistic in regard to the two sides being able to come up with a written agreement that has any substance to it. However, the State Department has persisted in putting pressure on outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to resolve their differences.
Because of continued U.S. pressure, there may be a working paper given to Bush at the end of his term in office. It could obligate the next Israeli prime minister to fulfill “pre-conditions” before future negotiations. However, there is unlikely to be details on the status of core issues. Israelis and Palestinians have been unwilling to meet half-way on those red lines that they can’t seem to cross.
To complicate matters, Olmert recently said he will resign after his Kadima party selects another prime minister in mid-September primaries. Stepping down because of corruption charges, which have limited his ability to govern, he is now unable to come to significant terms of peace with Abbas. Both men are considered too weak, politically, to advance the process.
Bush wanted to leave a legacy behind him of at least a “shelf agreement” between the two parties; one that would determine final borders. But, as the Israelis and Palestinians have admitted, the real sticking point of the negotiations past and present has been the final status of Jerusalem. Olmert plans to address this issue, continuing negotiations with Abbas, even if he is in office for the next couple of months as an unpopular lame duck prime minister. He is determined to press on with the peace process until Kadima is able to form a new government without him.
While Olmert can, technically, remain in office for a time, he will not have the power to resolve major points of contention between Israel and the Palestinians, especially while fighting the corruption charges brought against him.
In the U.S., Bush is already a lame duck president and all eyes are now on Middle East initiatives presented and endorsed by McCain and Obama. Concerning U.S. policy in the Middle East, what are the platforms of these two men?
WHAT WE CAN EXPECT FROM THE CANDIDATES
Obama’s whirlwind tour through the Middle East in July brought him to Israel for only two days. During his time here, he packed in visits to Yad Vashem, Sderot, and the Western Wall. He also did a few exclusive media interviews. Headlines were blaring with his comments. In Jerusalem, he backtracked on a statement he made in June at an AIPAC pro-Israel conference in Washington, D.C. At that time, he said that Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel.
But, speaking to reporters during his first trip to the Holy Land, he stated that Jerusalem was the capital of Israel, but he believed that Israel and the Palestinians would have to resolve this final status issue. He pressed Israel to consider previous agreements and commitments made, and said that aggressive settlement construction would violate the spirit, if not the letter of those agreements. He did not see settlement construction as a contribution to Israel’s enhanced security.
McCain took a trip to Israel earlier this year but did not receive the same media attention as Obama. Recently, McCain declared that, if elected, he would move the U.S. Embassy to Jerusalem right away. This was seen as an affirmation of his commitment to an undivided Jerusalem. Obama’s statements indicated that he would not move the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem until the Israelis and Palestinians were close to an agreement.
On the eve of Obama’s visit to Israel, Dr. Michael Oren, historian, author and Middle East expert, met with journalists at MediaCentral in Jerusalem to discuss the platforms of both Obama and McCain. Oren, who is a Senior Fellow at the Shalem Center has been collecting interviews and speeches given by the candidates over the last two years, and has a research department that has been analyzing the data.
Oren stated, “Republican McCain and Democratic Obama have taken up the challenge of Bush’s legacy. They have both gone out of their way to praise Israel as the bastion of democracy in the Middle East; as the primary American ally in this region.” According to Oren, both men have been outspoken in their support of Zionism; both have signed on to the $30 billion ten year military package to Israel; both have upheld the notion of maintaining Israel’s strategic military edge; both have asserted that Israel’s security is vital to America’s security and vice versa.
Oren explained that where the two candidates begin to differ is in their view of the peace process. While they have both stated that they would take a “hands on” approach, how they would go about putting that into practice differs greatly.
Obama continues to agree with the Palestinians about their need for contiguous land between the West Bank (Judea and Samaria) and Gaza for the formation of a Palestinian state. Therefore, Obama would be expected to put more pressure on Israel about settlement expansion.
McCain has repeatedly called for the Palestinian Authority to live up to its responsibilities under the Road Map in suppressing and dismantling terrorists. Therefore, McCain would, most likely, return to the step by step approach of the Road Map, obligating the Palestinians and then the Israelis to fulfill their commitments.
How do the two candidates perceive the role of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in relationship to other Middle Eastern conflicts? “This is the most fundamental difference,” said Oren. “Obama subscribes to the assumption long held by the State Department. It is embodied in the Iraq Study Report which holds that the Arab-Israeli conflict is the core conflict in the Middle East. If you solve that conflict then you can begin to address the other conflicts”.
McCain totally rejects this idea as Oren clarified, “McCain believes that you cannot begin to resolve the Israeli-Arab conflict before you address the core of the conflict, which is Islamic radicalism.” McCain sees the process in reverse of how Obama sees it. McCain believes that first Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas must be neutralized and only then should the U.S. bring its influence to the peace process.
Oren also concluded that McCain would be more sympathetic to Israeli claims to Jerusalem and less likely to put pressure on Israel about settlements.
While many citizens here think that McCain would be an easier American president to deal with should he be elected to the White House, the fact is that U.S. foreign policy vis-a-vis the peace process is less likely to change as long as the State Department has major influence over implementing it. This is where the formation of America’s position in the Middle East has evolved over the years, and career diplomats within the State Department are not going to easily retreat from their pivotal role.
THE LAND GIVEN
As the U.S. and other nations decide how they want to affect events on the ground in this region, it is only through a biblical approach to policy that one can understand who the land belongs to. This is where the Middle East picture becomes clear. The land is the covenant promise God gave to Abraham, and it extends beyond Israel’s current borders. This covenant land, also promised to Abraham’s descendants Isaac and Jacob, includes the mountains of Judea and Samaria that surround Jerusalem. It is a land covenant that has lasted thousands of years; a covenant that God, Himself has not broken.
It would benefit nations, like America, to heed to the Lord’s plans for Israel which involve responsibilities of stewardship; not withdrawal. God also expects Israel to preserve the city of Jerusalem. This is the city most on His heart; and one that He has not chosen to divide.
“May God Almighty bless you and make you fruitful and multiply you, that you may be an assembly of peoples. And, give you the blessing of Abraham; to you and your descendants with you; that you may inherit the land in which you are a stranger; which God gave to Abraham.” (Genesis 28:3-4)
“As the mountains surround Jerusalem, so the Lord surrounds His people, from this time forth and forever.” (Psalm 125:2).
“Jerusalem is built as a city that is compact together where the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord; to the Testimony of Israel; to give thanks to the name of the Lord. For thrones are set there for judgment, the thrones of the house of David.” (Psalm 122:3-5).
Ms. Haves is a news analyst, reporting from Israel on political, diplomatic, military and spiritual issues affecting the nation.
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Unless otherwise indicated, Scripture taken from the New King James Version. Copyright ©1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. Used by permission. All rights reserved.