Middle East Tour d’Horizon
Advice for Obama and Kerry as they plan their next trips abroad.

President Barack Obama boards Air Force One


Clifford D. May

Next month, both President Obama and newly minted secretary of state John Kerry head for the Middle East. They should listen to a range of views, see the sights, and pause to smell the hummus. As for policies, this would be a good time to consider a few adjustments. Below is a briefing — a briefer briefing than they will get from their advisers — on the state of the states, the players in play, and some different approaches to contemplate.

Israel and the Palestinians: Whatever peace process may have taken place in the past cannot be resuscitated in the present. The most that is possible now is the resumption of negotiations — without preconditions. The Israelis are not about to make concessions just to get Palestinians to talk with them — especially now that Palestinian Authority president Mahmoud Abbas has violated the Oslo Accords by attempting to change the status of the Palestinian territories unilaterally. Meanwhile, Hamas, a terrorist organization whose primary goal is not Palestinian statehood but Israeli extinction, remains firmly in control of Gaza, from which Israel withdrew in 2005 and has received nothing but rocket attacks in return. Abbas is now 78, a heavy smoker in poor health. He has designated no successor. When he dies, Hamas will attempt to take over the West Bank as well. Israel will do whatever is necessary to prevent that. Surely, heading off a crisis this predictable should be a priority.

Lebanon: Hezbollah is both Iran’s foreign legion and a terrorist organization; its most recent attack on civilians was in July in Bulgaria. Despite that — or perhaps because of it — Hezbollah has become the most powerful force in Lebanon. Hezbollah is installing missiles, at least 60,000 so far, not just in the south but throughout the country, including in densely populated areas, where Lebanese civilians are being set up as human shields. The U.N. and the “international community” have done nothing in response. If these missiles are fired at Haifa, Tel Aviv, and Jerusalem, thousands of Israelis will be killed. Unless the situation changes, the next war between Hezbollah and Israel — a war for which momentum is now building — is likely to be exceedingly bloody. Time to put some effort into averting this catastrophe as well.

Syria: What started as a peaceful protest against an oppressive dictatorship has turned into a sectarian/religious/ethnic conflict that has taken nearly 70,000 lives — with no end in sight. Early on, the U.S. had an opportunity to support moderate Syrian factions. The secretary of state, the director of Central Intelligence, and the chairman of the military’s Joint Chiefs of Staff all advised President Obama to grasp that opportunity. He chose not to do so. Meanwhile, Iran and Hezbollah continue to strongly back the Assad regime. Foreign combatants with links to al-Qaeda are fighting on the other side. Is it too late to identify and assist factions that share our values and interests so that they will have some clout after Assad falls? The question is worth exploring. There are also Syria’s chemical weapons to consider. What’s the plan to make sure those don’t end up in the hands of Hezbollah or al-Qaeda?

Jordan: King Abdullah II, a moderate from an Arab clan that traces its ancestry to the prophet Mohammed, faces enormous challenges. Among them: a flood of Syrian refugees, the rise of Islamism, and Iran’s regional ambitions. Jordan needs American help and, like all the reasonable actors in the Middle East, benefits from American strength and is endangered by American weakness and retreat.