Marc Lynch

Evaluating Clinton’s Middle East trip — a mixed bag

Evaluating Clinton’s Middle East trip — a mixed bag

 Hillary Clinton has now addressed the Sharm al-Shaykh conference on the reconstruction of Gaza, met with one set of Palestinian leaders in Ramallah and a cross-section of Israeli leaders, given an interview to al-Arabiya, and unveiled a delegation to Syria.  That’s enough to give some preliminary judgments on the trip. How’d she do?  A mixed bag. 

  • Reaffirming the Palestinian state:  Good.  Clinton’s strongest moments came when she affirmed the American commitment to Israeli-Palestinian peace and the principle of a two-state solution. She also did well to call for opening the Gaza border crossing to humanitarian supplies, and to criticize Israeli settlement activity in Jerusalem and the West Bank. These statements led much of the Arab press coverage, and should offer some encouragement to the Arab leaders trying to put together a renewed Arab peace initiative at the Doha summitt.  
  • Reaching out to Syria: Promising.   Clinton’s announcement that she was appointing Acting Assistant Secretary of State for NEA Jeff Feltman and NSC Senior Director for the Middle East Dan Shapiro as envoys to Syria was also a positive step.  Engaging with Syria has been an integral part of the overall regional strategy Obama brought into the White House, and it’s good to see it taking shape so quickly and at such a high level.  It is significant that this coincides with the consolidation of the Saudi-Syrian rapprochement (after a meeting on the margins of the Cairo meeting of Arab Foreign Ministers yesterday with his Syrian counterparts, Saudi Foreign Minister Saud al-Faisal is reportedly on his way to Damascus to follow up).  Feltman, who developed a very strong relationship with the anti-Syrian March 14 forces during his time as Ambassador to Lebanon, was not likely Syria’s first choice — but for exactly that reason, his involvement probably strengthens the engagement by signaling the breadth of American buy-in to the discussions.  The risk: that the Syria track becomes Netanyahu’s excuse to avoid talking to Palestinians.  But I’ve been a supporter of moving first on the Syrian track for a while now, as are a number of people whose views I respect, and I’m encouraged to see signs that this might be getting underway. 
  • Talking to al-Arabiya: Good, with reservations.  Clinton is to be commended for making the time for another high-profile interview with a top Arab satellite TV station. She didn’t tailor her remarks to Arab sensitivities —  I’d reckon that she talked more about missiles from Gaza and Israel’s self-defense than Arab audiences really want to hear, but if that’s her position then so be it.  More broadly, it would have been better if she had chosen al-Jazeera this time, after Obama gave al-Arabiya the first shot.  Al-Jazeera has a larger audience, and more credibility with the Arab publics that the U.S. presumably wants to reach.   The choice to go with al-Arabiya again (in conjunction with the strong identification with Mahmoud Abbas) reinforces the old "moderate vs rejection camp" divide which Arab reconciliation efforts have been trying to overcome.  Going on to Arab satellite TV as a matter of course is a crucial part of public diplomacy, and a tip of the hat to Clinton for doing it… but now’s the time to start widening the range of outlets for such interviews. 
  • Deep-sixing a Palestinian national unity government.  I have to say that I saw very little in Clinton’s public performance to support Tamara Wittes’ argument that Clinton was trying to support, not scupper, Palestinian talks aimed at achieving a government of national unity.  Clinton pointedly called Abbas’s Palestinian Authority the only legitimate government of the Palestinian people, and on every press occasion she went out of her way to emphasize "our support for the Palestinian Authority of President Abbas and Prime Minister Fayyad."  Clinton gave little ground on the question of Hamas participation in a national unity government.  Asked directly by al-Arabiya whether the U.S. would work with a government which included Hamas, she repeated that it would depend on Hamas first meeting the Quartet conditions of recognizing Israel, renouncing violence, and adhering to previous Palestinian agreements.  Were Hamas to do so, she allowed, then there could be a Palestinian unity government with which the U.S. could work.  (Hamas has already rejected such preconditions, and most Arabs who support the reconciliation efforts would prefer to find a workaround; Scott MacLeod has more here.) If there were ever an appropriate platform for Clinton to clearly signal the kind of flexibility that Wittes saw in her opening statements, the interview with al-Arabiya would have been it.  But I just didn’t see it.  I may well be wrong about this, but from what I’ve seen thus far, that’s how the Arab media across the great political divide have interpreted her position.[UPDATE: today she restated the position quite clearly to CNN.]

Overall then, Clinton’s visit has been something of a mixed bag.  The outreach to Syria has potential, and it was vital for everyone in the region to hear her strong statements in support of a two state solution.  The total focus on Abbas and Fayyad, on the other hand, and insistence on rigid preconditions for the inclusion of Hamas in a unity government, risks dragging the U.S. right back into the morass of the failed Bush approach to Palestinian politics and missing the opportunity to stitch back together some kind of Palestinian national unity. On those issues, at least, I’m afraid she came across as doing her best Condi Rice impression.   I’ll be watching to see whether her approach during this trip so emboldens Abbas and discourages backers of Hamas and the unity idea that the unity talks (which, as the influential Egyptian writer Fahmy Howeydi argued yesterday, wasn’t looking that hopeful to begin with) stall. 

I wish I could be more optimistic about the prospects of a "West Bank first, Fatah only" strategy, or that Clinton’s approach is really trying to find a workable formula to stitch together a workable Palestinian national unity government. At this point I’m not.  It looks too much like politics as usual, sticking with a strategy which didn’t work even when the conditions for such an approach were more favorable and reinforcing the very divisions which some Arabs are trying to overcome.  But once again, I am really hoping to be wrong about all this — so prove me wrong.  

For a guide to what may be the emerging Arab stance, Clinton and Mitchell could do worse than to read the long essay in today’s al-Hayat by the smart, independent Egyptian analyst Hassan Nafaa, who argues that Arabs don’t need another "peace process" designed to waste time while Israel continues to build settlements.  Nafaa urges that Arabs strengthen their bargaining position by consolidating a comprehensive reconciliation among Arab states, establishing Palestinian reconciliation within a reformed PLO  and a Palestinian unity government which includes Hamas without recourse to the Quartet preconditions, building relations with Iran and Turkey, and threatening to withdraw the Arab peace initiative if the Israelis don’t begin to reciprocate.  Where does Clinton’s strategy fit?