When it comes to the Middle East and the Bush-Obama transition, the most dramatic element might be the lack of drama.
Just a year ago, the Bush administration was talking about the creation of a Palestinian state by the end of the year and pledging to resolve the crisis over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. On both fronts, however, the White House seems to have abandoned its grandiose goals as President Bush’s second term nears an end.
This stands in sharp contrast to the final days of the previous transition, when the Clinton administration feverishly pressed for a final Israeli-Palestinian deal as the incoming Bush team watched with a skeptical eye.
One result is that from Iran to Israeli-Arab peacemaking, diametrically opposed approaches to the region are converging in Bush’s final days in office.
“It’s an achievement of sorts,” said Daniel Levy, a former adviser to Israeli peace teams and now an analyst with the New America Foundation, a liberal think tank in Washington.
Levy contrasted the transition to the Barack Obama presidency with the Clinton-Bush hand-over eight years ago, when “Anything but Clinton” was the catch phrase, particularly in reference to Middle East peacemaking.
“On the Israeli-Palestinian front, there will be a process and structure that will be handed over, a flawed process, but you can’t dismiss it considering what happened last time,” Levy said.
Israelis and Palestinians have not achieved the final-status agreement that Bush wanted by the time he leaves office Jan. 20, but modalities of cooperation that had been absent when Bush re-launched the peace process a year ago are now in place: Israelis are, incrementally, facilitating Palestinian trade and movement, and Palestinian security forces have assumed control in the Jenin and Hebron areas.
On what likely will be her last visit to the Middle East as U.S. secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice met last week with Palestinian and Israeli leaders, as well as with other representatives of the Quartet, the diplomatic grouping of Russia, the United States, the United Nations and the European Union that sponsors the peace process. She cited the collapse of the Israeli government and the call for new elections in acknowledging that a final peace deal was probably out of reach for the Bush administration.
The Quartet, meanwhile, already is looking ahead. In a concluding statement at its meeting, the international grouping emphasized “the importance of continuity of the peace process” and announced that the “spring of 2009 could be an appropriate time for an international meeting in Moscow.”
Tony Blair, the former British prime minister and the Quartet’s envoy to the region, said a clean baton-passing was critical.
The single most important thing is that the new administration in the United States grips this issue from day one,” he said Sunday at the Quartet meeting in the Egyptian resort of Sharm e-Sheik. “And it can do so knowing that there is a foundation upon which we can build.”
Transitions are times when outgoing administrations can get away with initiatives that might otherwise face resistance in Congress. President Reagan famously allowed contacts with the PLO in his administration’s dying days, saving the incoming administration of the first President Bush the pro-Israel opprobrium. And Clinton, hoping his vice president, Al Gore, would succeed him, wanted to wrap up Israeli-Palestinian peace as a steppingstone to broader Middle East advances.
Such late-term major initiatives do not come without considerable preparations, said Graeme Bannerman, an adjunct scholar at the Middle East Institute and a former top foreign policy legislative aide in the U.S. Senate. Years of talks had preceded both Reagan’s PLO initiative, as well as Clinton’s peace bid.
Bush instead is consolidating the modest gains of the last year, Bannerman said.
“He’s trying to make the transition as smooth as possible, and that argues against any bold initiative,” he said.
There is some last-minute scurrying, on a relatively small scale: The Bush administration is funneling at least $300 million to the Palestinian Authority that might have otherwise faced tough scrutiny by a Congress preoccupied with the economic meltdown.
Rice announced last week a transfer of $14 million to development in Jenin, including money for schools. Such transfers have been controversial in Congress in the past because of continued questions about incitement in Palestinian texts.
The money is aimed at bolstering moderates in the Palestinian Authority and could smooth Obama’s pledges to make the peace process a top priority from the beginning of his administration.
Bush, who once de-emphasized Arab-Israeli peace as less critical than promoting democracy in the region, came around to intensified engagement in part because of the exigencies of the Iraq war: He needed Arab backing to help quell the insurgency.
The president also has shifted course on Iran. Bush has pedaled back from his confrontational posture a year ago, when he agreed with Israel that Iran would be crossing a red line simply by acquiring Iranian nuclear weapons know-how – short of actually obtaining an actual bomb. There was even talk earlier this year of Bush ordering a strike during the transition period to save the incoming president the decision. By May, however, he seemed to have walked back from that approach, reportedly making clear to leaders in Jerusalem that the United States would not facilitate an Israeli strike.
Instead, Bush has come late in his term to favor Obama’s stated preference for reaching out to Iran. In July he sent the most senior State Department under secretary, William Burns, to Geneva to meet with Iranian diplomats to discuss the nuclear issue. Significantly, Burns now co-chairs the Bush side of the State Department’s transition team.
Another factor in the low profile on the Middle East is that other issues have elbowed their way to the front line, Bannerman said.
“You hear people around town argue that this administration does not want to go out leaving Iran hanging out,” he said. “But taking into account Iraq, Afghanistan and the economic crisis, there’s not much choice.”
Obama has made it clear as well that his tactic will be to first show Iran the stick and only then offer the carrot. In his first post-election news conference, the president-elect said that an Iran with nuclear weapons was “unacceptable.”
“We have to mount a international effort to prevent that from happening,” he said. “Iran’s support of terrorist organizations, I think, is something that has to cease.”
That drew a wounded reply from the Iranians: “This is a step in the wrong direction,” Ali Larijani, the speaker Iranian parliament, told state-run TV in remarks translated by The Associated Press. “If Americans want to change their situation in the region, they need to send good signals.”
Another factor mitigating against dramatic developments is that Middle East actors would prefer to shore up their actions to test the new president rather than deal with the lame duck, according to an analysis by the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a pro-Israel think tank.
“The Middle East will stake its claim on the new president’s limited time,” the analysis said. “Some players in the region will do so in a positive way, hoarding concessions now so they can deliver them to Obama. Others will seek to test him in destructive ways.”