The U.S. Must Look to its Own Mideast Interests
The U.S. Must Look to its Own Mideast Interests
War and Hunger in Gaza and Darfur
War and Hunger in Gaza and Darfur
Op-Ed / Middle East & North Africa 2 minutes

The U.S. Must Look to its Own Mideast Interests

Once a fatal attraction for Ariel Sharon, Lebanon has become a fatal distraction for his successor. Ehud Olmert's capacity to take action has been severely undermined, and his options for moving forward have been dramatically reduced.

A weak Israeli prime minister is not good for U.S. policy and bad options for Israel generally have meant bad options for the United States. But America has its own vital interests in this region and, Israel's constraints notwithstanding, must attend to them now.

Lebanon has proved once again that it is a morass for anyone foolish or unlucky enough to get caught up in its embrace. This summer's war has damaged Olmert's personal credibility, undermined his ability to govern, and led to a politically torturous process of internal examination that could shorten the life of his coalition and government. Lebanon's weak central authority and Hezbollah's effectiveness ensure that UN Security Council resolution 1701 will never be fully implemented and that Olmert will continue to be judged by the unachievable goals he set for Israel when this operation began.

Lebanon will also take its toll on the principal issue on which Olmert campaigned and was elected: disengagement from parts of the occupied West Bank. For now, Olmert's agenda has taken the unlikely shape of a drive to rebuild the war-damaged north, a laudable goal no doubt but hardly a cause that can fill the yawning political vacuum.

For a U.S. administration that has essentially deserted the Arab-Israeli arena and in effect followed Israel's lead, this does not bode well. Yet it should be seen and seized as an opportunity for the United States to define policies in the region that will promote its interests and can at least begin to undo the harm inflicted by six years of diplomatic neglect. None of this need come at the expense of Israeli interests; indeed, most of it would in fact serve Israeli peacemaking options over time.

What would such a retooled policy look like? There is a temptation in Washington to focus primarily on Lebanon. It is understandable, but it would be wrong. Dealing with Lebanon to the exclusion of all else contributed to the latest crisis, and could fuel the next.

Instead, the United States should broaden its diplomatic reach. This would entail engaging Syria, with eyes open and expectations low, on the subject of Lebanon, of course, but also on bilateral issues and an eventual resumption of negotiations with Israel, which President Bashar al-Assad reiterated was his wish as recently as this week.

The Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which remains the core issue in the region, also requires a fresh approach. A national unity government between Fatah and Hamas appears within reach, and the Europeans seem prepared to resume assistance to such a government once it takes shape. Should this happen, America shouldn't stand in the way - regardless of whether Hamas recognizes Israel or formally renounces violence. Instead, the United States should see this as an opportunity to achieve what is achievable: a Palestinian cease-fire involving all armed organizations, a halt to all Israeli offensive military actions, and the resumption of normal economic life for the Palestinian government and people.

Though there may well be no possibility for a negotiated solution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by the end of this administration's term, the United States must, together with European and Arab countries, put forward an inspiring, detailed vision of a comprehensive settlement. For years, a debate has raged in Washington over the desirability of such a move, with powerful arguments marshaled against it: the time is not ripe; Israel will object; failure to implement the vision will discredit it. All true, but at this point superseded by an overriding concern - the dizzying collapse of America's reputation and standing in the region at a time when Washington is more heavily invested in it than ever.

It's hard to imagine the U.S. administration embarking on any, let alone all of these steps. Yet all are desperately needed. And one can always hope.


Former President & CEO
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Aaron David Miller
Vice President for New Initiatives at Woodrow Wilson Center

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