US needs new answers in the Middle East | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 13.07.2014
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US needs new answers in the Middle East

The violence between the Israelis and Palestinians highlights the failure of the US policy for the Middle East. Now observers wonder if the time has come for the United States to rethink its approach to the region.

On May 28, Barack Obama took to the stage before graduates at the West Point academy outside New York and set out a new vision for US foreign policy. It was a sweeping 5,000-word address fine-tuning his approach to military power, diplomacy, and America's place in the world. But there was a striking omission: the world's most intractable conflict. Obama made barely any mention of the cycle of violence between Israel and the Palestinians, despite the fact that his Secretary of State John Kerry had spent much of the past year trying to end it.

Barely two weeks after Obama's speech, the kidnapping and murder of three Israeli teenagers, followed by the suspected revenge murder of a Palestinian teen, set that cycle of violence rolling again. At the time of writing, well over 100 people have been killed in Israeli airstrikes on the Gaza Strip, and hundreds of rockets have rained down on Israel. There is talk of a possible large-scale ground invasion of Gaza - even a third intifada by the Palestinians. The UN Security Council is calling for a ceasefire. The cycle of violence rolls on.

US-Präsident Obama/ Rede West Point

Obama's West Point speech was sweeping, but missed one thing out

What now?

Where does this leave US policy? The White House's most strident critics don't see this latest flare-up as incidental to Kerry's efforts. Far from it: writing in the online Jewish magazine, Tablet Magazine, Lee Smith of the conservative Hudson Institute says the Obama administration shares the blame. "At a time of relative peace and quiet, the White House put the Israelis and Palestinians under the spotlight with a buzzer set to go off," he wrote. "Yet the most basic problem that Kerry faced was that neither side had any real faith in America's own commitment … All of the administration's Middle East policies pointed to the same thing: America wants out of the Middle East."

Should Kerry have let sleeping dogs lie? Was his peace push a misguided last gasp in the Middle East as the US sought to "pivot" to Asia - setting up dangerously unrealistic expectations? David Pollock of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy disagrees. "I think the opposite," he told DW. "On the contrary … I think it preserved the peace, or helped preserve it, for about a year - which, given the circumstances in the region, is not a small accomplishment."

Diplomatic vacuum

Palästina Israel Angriff auf den Gazastreifen 12.07.2014 Luftangriff Gaza-Stadt

Gaza has been under massive bombardment from Israel

That view was echoed at a recent event at the Wilson Center in Washington, where panellists gave Kerry credit for at least making the effort. Here the consensus was not that he was overambitious - rather, perhaps, that he gave up too quickly when his plan ground to a halt in April. Robert Danin of the Council on Foreign Relations - a State Department veteran - said, "What there is right now is a diplomatic vacuum. The one thing that I am concerned about in the way the diplomacy culminated in April is that there was no 'plan B' … there should be some sort of diplomatic fallback short of an all-or-nothing type of approach."

Danin said that means switching modes from "conflict resolution" to "crisis management" – a downgrade which Pollock describes as recognition that the conflict is "just not ripe" for resolution. But does the US need a more fundamental rethink in Mideast policy?

How will America lead?

Obama may have neglected the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in his West Point speech, but does his core message hint at a possible new approach? "The question we face … is not whether America will lead, but how we will lead," he said.

The crux of the new "how" for American leadership set out in Obama's address is greater reliance on multilateral diplomacy. Is that what was missing in Kerry's plan? Does the US need to bring in more partners to achieve Mideast peace rather than try to solve the problem itself? David Pollock told DW: maybe.

Kerry und Abbas in Ramallah

Kerry was not too ambitious, he just gave up too quickly, say analysts

"I think this is an open question," he said. "I don't think the US feels that this should be an American monopoly … But the problem there is very simple: Israel does not view other plausible parties as having a fair position. So if Europe, for example, wanted to play a larger and more effective role, it would have to take those Israeli concerns much more into account."

In the region itself, there are doubts about another potential partner, Egypt. Its former president Mohammed Morsi had ties to Hamas, and brokered a ceasefire between the Islamist group and Israel during the last major bout of violence in 2012. But he was ousted last year and his successor, Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, is seen as too hostile to Hamas to perform a similar role.

So the US remains, as Obama said at West Point, the "indispensable nation" - even as it shifts from conflict resolution to crisis management. Pollock puts the move in its grim context. "If you compare what's happening today between the Palestinians and Israel to what's happening every day in Syria or in Iraq, or in other hotspots in the Middle East or around the world, I don't think that this issue rises to the level of those other more urgent and more fundamental crises."

It's a daunting array of challenges for the "indispensable nation" as it tries to recalibrate its place in the world - after yet another failure to end the most enduring conflict of them all.

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