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Sunday, March 1, 2009

Middle East: Thorn in Obama's Side

He has dispatched envoys, offered his hand in friendship to old enemies and even raised the matter last night in his first big speech to Congress on the state of the nation. But no matter how hard Barack Obama tries, the Middle East is proving even more challenging a problem than he could have reasonably expected.

In the space of a few days the mess he inherited from George Bush has got a lot messier.
Take Israel. After elections this month that many in the West hoped would lead to a centrist coalition led by Tzipi Livni, the Kadima Party leader, the new Government will now be formed by the man who came second.

Binyamin Netanyahu, the Likud leader, will likely head the most right-wing coalition for two decades. To make matters worse, it will have a tiny five-seat majority in the Knesset, leaving it weak and unstable as well as ideologically incompatible with a new peace process.

On the Palestinian, side little has progressed since the bloody battle for Gaza in January. Hamas remains firmly in charge of the destroyed coastal strip, while the Palestinian Authority under its President, Mahmoud Abbas, looks weaker than ever.
While Palestinian-Israeli dialogue is unlikely to produce any movement for some time, there had been hopes of progress between Israel and its long-time enemy Syria.

Here the Americans can play a hugely positive role by re-engaging with Damascus after a four-year freeze in relations. Already there are signs of progress. Imad Mustafa, the Syrian Ambassador to Washington has been invited to a rare meeting at the State Department with a senior US official. The next step could be the reappointment of a US Ambassador to Damascus.

There are problems, however. Syria has not shown any inclination to halt its support for militant groups such as Hezbollah and Hamas. Worse, the United Nations is expected soon to press ahead with a trial into the murder of Rafik Hariri, the former Lebanese Prime Minister, whose assassination many blame on the Syrian regime. Should these allegations come to light in open court, ties with Damascus could be put back in the deep freeze.

Finally there is America’s relationship with Iran, probably the key to the future stability in the entire region. Both President Obama and his Iranian counterpart, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, have raised the prospects of resuming direct dialogue 30 years after the two states became sworn enemies.

Read it all here.

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