Middle East tensions are rising as President Obama prepares to visit Israel, the West Bank and Jordan. Clearly, Iran will be at the top of the agenda. On Thursday, Mr. Obama announced that Tehran was only about a year away from producing a nuclear bomb. “Obviously, we don’t want to cut it too close,” he noted.
Another issue requiring urgent attention: forging a common policy that will limit the regional fallout from Syria’s meltdown. Much less urgent is pursuing the Holy Grail of the American presidency: an Israeli-Palestinian peace — an issue that is simply not ripe for resolution.
Step One for the president: repairing his rocky personal relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
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Netanyahu’s prime concern is halting Iran’s nuclear weapons program— the top priority for U.S. interests as well. Mr. Obama must convince Netanyahu that the U.S. is indeed prepared to take military action against Iran’s nuclear facilities if Tehran rejects a diplomatic deal. He should also privately clarify what he regards as acceptable terms for a diplomatic agreement.
Last week, the president told American Jewish leaders that we must give Tehran a face-saving retreat to a diplomatic solution. Netanyahu needs assurances that this does not entail dropping demands that Iran give up its highly enriched uranium, close its Fordow uranium enrichment facility and accept more rigorous inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency.
President Obama also should reaffirm Washington’s commitment to missile defense. Israel worries that U.S. funding for the Iron Dome missile defense system—slated at $211 million dollars—is in jeopardy. The President should assure Netanyahu that the sequester budget cuts will not affect this program or the cooperative effort on the Arrow and David’s Sling missile defense systems. Given the recent saber-rattling from North Korea, missile defense should be a top priority for Washington, just as it is for Jerusalem.
With trust restored, Obama and Netanyahu should issue a joint statement declaring that rapid progress at the revived nuclear talks with Iran are essential if they are to avert the need for a preventive military strike. This would put more pressure on Iran to negotiate in good faith, rather than merely use the negotiations to buy time to finish its nuclear project.
Containing Syrian Side Effects
Syria will dominate the discussions in Amman. Jordan is an important ally, directly threatened by the spillover of refugees and Islamist extremism from Syria.
More than 450,000 refugees already strain its small economy. And Jordan, like Israel, is concerned that Syria’s chemical weapons may fall into the hands of al-Qaeda, Hezbollah or other terrorist groups.
By offering more humanitarian aid for the refugees and support for King Abdullah’s political and economic reform programs (which helped keep Jordan relatively stable during the tumultuous “Arab Spring”), Washington can ease Jordan’s internal strains. The visit should also help finalize joint contingency planning to mitigate the threat posed by Syria’s chemical weapons.
The two leaders should also focus on what can be done to accelerate the fall of the Assad regime while strengthening moderate Syrian opposition leaders against Islamist extremists. The longer Assad clings to power, the stronger Islamist militants are likely to become within a polarized Syria.
Reviving Israeli-Palestinian talks
The White House signaled that no major peace initiative will be launched on the trip. That’s a prudent decision, since the prospects for success are currently nil. Having watched Hamas turn Gaza into a base for terrorism, Israel has little incentive to take risks for the promise of peace. For its part, the Palestinian Authority (PA) refuses to negotiate until Israel halts all settlement activity—a precondition that is inconsistent with the 1993 Oslo Accords.
President Obama should encourage PA President Mahmoud Abbas to resume direct negotiations with Israel and disabuse him of the notion that he can sit back and wait for Washington to deliver Israeli concessions. Abbas should also be warned away from forming a “unity” government Hamas. Elevating an organization implacably committed to Israel’s destruction would explode any chance for peace for years to come.
The bottom line for this trip: Iranian nukes and the Syrian meltdown are Jobs 1 and 1A. Both situations pose urgent threats to the U.S., Israel and Jordan. Reviving direct negotiations between Israel and the PA would be good, too, but talks can’t produce a final settlement until the Hamas terrorist threat has been eliminated.
James Phillips is the Senior Research Fellow for Middle Eastern Affairs in The Heritage Foundation's Allison Center for Foreign Policy Studies.