Syria first

Thus far in the American presidential campaign, neither the Obama nor the McCain camp appears to have formulated a realistic order of priorities for dealing with issues surrounding the Israel-Arab peace process within the larger Middle East context. Here is an attempt to sort out those issues.

Both candidates clearly and justifiably place highest priority on Iraq, Afghanistan and Iran. Senator John McCain says the US must "win" in Iraq, enlarge its armed forces so it can reinforce the troops in Afghanistan and oppose Iran’s military nuclear program. He and his entourage barely mention the Israeli-Palestinian and Israel-Syria peace processes.

Senator Barack Obama talks about withdrawing from Iraq within around a year and a half, moving forces to Afghanistan–an arena to which he assigns higher priority–and talking to Iran without preconditions. When visiting Israel and Palestine he promises to deal with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process immediately and intensively, while back home he indicates he "won’t wait seven years" (like the Bush administration) to apply his administration’s energies to that process–a prescription that appears to imply somewhat less urgency. Understandably, in view of the Bush administration failure in this regard, neither camp talks much about democratization.

When you confront spokespersons for the two candidates with the obvious necessity to prioritize their Middle East tasks, the usual answer is that everything is equally urgent and important. But no US administration can apply all of its limited military, financial and diplomatic resources simultaneously and over time to so many demanding issues in the region. Obama appears to have done a bit more prioritizing than McCain: he clearly assigns greater importance to Afghanistan than Iraq, for example, and may be ranking Israel-Palestine at a lower level of urgency.

Indeed, Israel-related issues do not merit top priority on the next president’s Middle East agenda. Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan come first, even when we factor in the undoubted positive influence any Israel-Arab peace agreement could have on America’s fortunes in those more distant arenas. So leaving aside the campaign hype on both the Republican and Democrat sides, the question the next president will really confront is, after dealing with Iran/Iraq/Afghanistan, how does he allocate his limited residual Middle East resources to the Israel-Arab conflict.

The answer should be clear: give priority to Israel-Syria over Israel-Palestine. An Israel-Syria peace process with heavy American input is more likely to succeed than an Israeli-Palestinian process, and the payoff, the peace dividend, is potentially far greater for the region-at-large and particularly the Iraq and Iran arenas.

An Israeli-Palestinian peace process cannot succeed without stronger Israeli and Palestinian leadership. The current Israeli government can barely dismantle a single outpost, while the Abbas/Fayyad government in Ramallah cannot deliver Hamas-ruled Gaza. While the Israeli-Palestinian dynamic must not be neglected by the next administration lest it regress, American input should be directed in the short term toward confidence-building, laying the political foundations for united and moderate Palestinian rule and testing the capacity of the government of Israel to deliver on its commitments. The worst thing the Obama or McCain administration could do is commit to another all-out Israeli-Palestinian peace process that fails and consequently generates more chaos and violence.

In contrast, the Israel-Syria process is begging for constructive American input. The next president should, together with his European and moderate Arab allies, offer Syria a package of economic and political benefits that enable it to leave the radical pro-Iran camp and commit to a major change in strategic orientation. If this succeeds (there is no guarantee when it comes to Bashar Assad, but the odds are better than in Ramallah and Gaza), the resultant major transformation in Syria’s regional status, setback for Iran’s aspirations in the Levant, reduction in Hizballah and Hamas terrorism and added stability for Iraq would not only benefit Washington’s higher-ranking priorities to the east but would convince Israelis to "pay" with the Golan Heights in return for enhanced strategic security. It would help stabilize Lebanon–another highly problematic item on the next president’s Middle East agenda that neither candidate appears interested in talking about–and would even strengthen the cause of Israeli-Palestinian peace by weakening Hamas and bringing Syria into the moderate camp.

Thus, President Obama or President McCain’s Middle East agenda should logically begin with Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan and follow with Syria-Israel. Obama in particular must consider the strategic needs of Israel and the moderate Arab states in talking to Iran or withdrawing from Iraq. In the short term, the Palestinian-Israeli process should be lower on the list, with the emphasis on conflict-management and improving the political environment. The impression left by Obama’s rhetoric on his recent visit here that on January 21, 2009 he would somehow "hit the ground running" regarding Israel-Palestine is a mistake. So is McCain’s apparent preference not to address Israel-related peace process issues with any sense at all of urgency.

Finally, both American political camps must never forget or ignore the true Middle East reality. At the end of the day, it is the region’s unanticipated crises that to a large extent determine the direction of American policy. A Hizballah takeover in Lebanon, a mega-terrorist attack on Israel, the assassination of a national leader, skyrocketing energy prices, a regime crisis in Kabul or Baghdad, a new Iranian boast or threat or even a new war in the region–these are the sort of developments that the next president will have to respond to in the middle of the night in Washington.