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Whither U.S. Mideast Policy?

Soon after taking office in 2009, President Obama spoke of reining in the U.S. role around the world and of making a concerted outreach to non-Western countries, particularly the Arab states and Iran, which he said had been unfairly dealt with in the past by the U.S.

Some of us feared the close relationship between Israel and the U.S. would suffer. When Mr. Obama promptly went public with attacks on Israel’s settlement policy, those fears were realized. However, the president made a full about-face when confronted by a solid wall of congressional pushback. There followed several years of truly remarkable enhancements of U.S. military assistance to Israel as well as political support internationally, especially at the United Nations.

Unfortunately, it seems the president may be reverting to his original vision of a new relationship with the Arabs and Iran.

We were thunderstruck when Secretary of State John Kerry reacted to the now stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace talks with some thinly veiled anti-Israel broadsides. In an interview on Palestine TV, Kerry said:

The alternative to getting back to the talks is the potential of chaos…. Does Israel want a third intifada?… I believe that if we do not resolve the issues between Palestinians and Israelis, if we do not find a way to find peace, there will be an increasing isolation of Israel, there will be an increasing campaign of the delegitimization of Israel that has been taking place on an international basis…. If we do not resolve the question of settlements, and who lives where and what rights they have; if we don’t end the presence of Israeli soldiers perpetually in the West Bank, then there will be an increasing feeling that if you cannot get peace with a [Palestinian] leadership that is committed to non-violence, we may wind up with a [Palestinian] leadership that is committed to violence.

In another interview, Kerry said that “as long as the aspirations of people are held down one way or another…[the] possibilities of violence” increase.

Further, as was widely reported, the much heralded foreign minister-level negotiations between Iran and six world powers, including the U.S., over restraining Iran’s nuclear program, fell apart last weekend as Iran insisted on recognition of its “right” to enrich uranium. But the fundamental problem is that what was meant to be an all-or-nothing process of telling Iran what it had to do with its nuclear program in order for sanctions to be lifted instead became more of a two-sided give and take between two equal sides.

All this over the vociferous opposition of Israel, which cited its core security needs and the necessity of Iran being made to abandon its nuclear program now, with no chance for subterfuge and concealment.

The draft deal with Iran, which was championed by the U.S. and spearheaded by Secretary Kerry, called for Iran to temporarily freeze significant parts of its nuclear program – but not all nuclear enrichment – as an interim step while negotiations continued to reach a comprehensive agreement. In return, Iran would have gotten a measure of relief from the economic sanctions regime. The Washington Post reported that the most outspoken critic of the plan was the French foreign minister, who cautioned the other Western officials that they should avoid falling for a “fool’s game” that was advantageous to Iran and which created great risks for Israeli security.

Significantly, in tandem with the talks, Secretary Kerry repeatedly asked Congressional leaders not to increase the sanctions against Iran while negotiations continued. But Congress doesn’t seem to be in charitable mood.

Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Robert Menendez said this past Sunday on ABC’s “This Week” that the U.S. should move forward on Iranian sanctions.

“I think,” he said, “that the possibility of moving ahead with new sanctions, including wording it in such a way that if there is a deal that is acceptable that those sanctions could cease upon such a deal, is possible.”

According to Sen. Menendez, increasing sanctions would provide

an insurance for the United States to make sure that Iran actually complies with an agreement that we would want to see…. At the same time it’s also an incentive to the Iranians to know what’s coming if you don’t strike a deal…. So I look forward to working with my colleagues in the Senate to move forward on a package that ultimately would send a very clear message where we intend to be if the Iranians don’t strike a deal and stop their nuclear weapons program.

A move away from this position, the senator said, signals that “we seem to want the deal almost more than the Iranians. And you can’t want the deal more than the Iranians, especially when the Iranians are on the rope.”

Senator Bob Corker of Tennessee, a senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, charged that the Obama administration was “dealing away our leverage.”

So it looks again like once again it will have to be Congress to the rescue.

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