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Rapprochement Ca​rries Little Risk for the United States and Israel

March 12, 2009 By:
Barak Mendelsohn
Posted In 
Hillary Rodham Clinton's first visit to the Middle East as secretary of state signaled a departure, though not a clean break, from the policies of the previous administration. Clinton pledged $900 million in aid to the Palestinians and her criticism of Israel's tight control of the border crossings into the Gaza Strip reaffirmed the administration's stated commitment to the Palestinian people.

At the same time, she made clear that America will not change its basic position toward Hamas, and remains committed to the demands that it renounce violence and recognize Israel's right to exist. Less expected was Clinton's announcement that the United States would send envoys to Syria.

The announcement represented the administration's less ideological and more pragmatic approach to the Mideast. Former President George W. Bush sought to isolate Damascus and viewed discussions with the Syrians as rewarding bad behavior. Until a few years ago, it even dissuaded Israel from approaching Syria. In contrast, President Barack Obama seeks to explore new possibilities to defuse tensions in the Middle East before they explode into conflict. This administration understands that efforts to isolate Syria are untenable. Rather than attempting to salvage a failed policy, the United States now prefers to view contacts with Syria as a chance to change the combustible dynamic in the Middle East.

There is little risk in the new American approach. The announcement has not been perceived as a concession to Syria, but as the fulfillment of the president's promise to change course. In fact, such a step was anticipated as a signal to the Arab world that change has arrived in Washington. The initial visit and further contacts may fail, but it is a first step the Obama administration had to take.

If successful, the American overture has the potential to accrue important gains not just for the United States, but also for Israel -- by putting the Israeli-Syrian and the Israeli-Palestinian peace processes back on track, stopping violence between Israel and Hamas, and constraining Hezbollah.

Most importantly, it will be a significant move against the most urgent problem of the United States in the region -- Iran. Clinton surely knew prior to her visit that U.S. allies in the region are disturbed by Iran's belligerence. But she was probably surprised to learn the depth of the apprehension, particularly among its allies in the Persian Gulf.

Iran is meddling in every conflict -- working to undermine stability in the region, increase its influence and establish regional hegemony. Rescuing Syria from Iran's orbit could undermine Tehran's designs and significantly reduce tensions in the region. By separating Syria from Iran, a main channel of support to Hezbollah would be blocked, thereby reducing the threat to the moderate forces in Lebanon, as well as to Israel. The result could be a taming of Hezbollah and some stability for Lebanon.

Moreover, Iran's ability to use the Hezbollah card as a threat against U.S. allies in the region in an attempt to deter America from taking action against the regime in Tehran and Iran's nuclear program will greatly diminish.

An improved relationship with Syria could lead it to stop playing an obstructive role and even to push Hamas to more conciliatory positions. Such a change could assist in reuniting the Palestinians, and forcing Hamas to accept the two-state solution and recognize Israel, preconditions to any real progress in the peace process. A further consequence could be the decrease of Syria's interest in acquiring weapons of mass destruction. Most important, greater stability in the heart of the Middle East would also ease U.S. efforts to thwart Iran's nuclear program and hegemonic designs in the region.

The chances that U.S. rapprochement efforts will succeed are not clear, but they have low risks and a potential high payoff. Israel should encourage the new American approach, which could improve the prospects for peace and reposition the United States as an honest broker. In the end, Israel's position toward the American step is likely to depend on whether the government led by Benjamin Netanyahu is committed to the formula of land for peace and willing to make territorial concessions for a lasting peace.

Barak Mendelsohn is an assistant professor of political science at Haverford College and the author of the forthcoming book Combating Jihadism: American Hegemony and Interstate Cooperation in the War on Terrorism.

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