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Sunday, December 7, 2008

Obama to Seek Middle East Peace with Syria's Help

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.”

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