Solving the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians deserves attention and priority from President Obama and Secretary of State Kerry. Both sides have not done as much as they ought to have done to create an environment within which some of the issues could be moving to resolution, especially given the nine-month peace initiative begun last summer.
Most of the outstanding issues between the parties remain—at least publically—unresolved. In addition, many of the personal attacks and recriminations on all sides by at all participants have been noticeably unhelpful to the on-going talks.
That having been said, however, it is rather amazing how focused the international community has become on this conflict, while Iran’s compliance with its agreement with the P5+1 (Permanent Members of the UN Security Council plus Germany) is dragging its feet during the six-month window. The posturing from Washington, in world capitals, and Teheran suggests that nothing constructive is emerging from the agreement reached this fall.
In addition, the Syrian Government continues to thwart efforts to bring sanity to Syria. The Geneva peace talks continue to be rather farcical. Syria persists in making feints and starts towards reconciling with the rebels, only raising new obstacles or walking away from negotiations whenever they appear to be progressing. Meanwhile the suffering continues, refugees keep increasing, and the Syrian people are enduring another horrible winter, with only modest supplies of relief goods actually passing through to the hungry, wounded, elderly, and indigent.
Similarly, the Assad government has made a total joke of its pledge to remove all its chemical/biological weapons in a timely manner. As understood in the fall, all gas caches were to be safely in port by the end of 2013; loading of ships was to follow, and then their destruction at sea. To date, reports suggest that less than 20 percent of the poison gas has been delivered to port and obviously not yet destroyed. Specifically, as this month, the U.N. Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons reported that only 11 percent of the chemical weapons had been removed from Syria despite the fact that the Feb. 5 deadline for all of the material to have been removed had passed.
The Syrian claim that conditions are not conducive to transporting the gas containers across the country given the persistent military instability, while legitimate, was not unexpected. It also falls into the trap into which the Syrians led the West when they agreed to this fallback position last fall.
The problem for the West remains twofold. First, what happened last summer when Syria crossed the Obama imposed redline—using gas weapons against its own citizens—and the U.S. squirmed out of its commitment to respond to such a trespass, left no one assuming that the Obama Administration was prepared to mount a military campaign against Syria.
Syria’s reluctance to comply expeditiously with the American-Russian demand that it remove all its gas stockpiles only underscores the total lack of seriousness with which the Assad regime continues to hold the Obama threats. (So, too, presumably is the case with Teheran’s concerns about serious U.S. military attacks on Iran.) No Arab leader in the region, from Libya, to Egypt, to Saudi Arabia, to Iran, to Turkey, believes that the U.S has a genuine interest or is prepared –except as a bluff — to re-enter the region militarily.
Second, this situation leaves the U.S., barring a major catastrophe, confrontation, or terrorist incident, appearing as a paper tiger. The national security establishment is wringing its hands, using all the diplomatic niceties, and watching all the serious gross international violations pass by. The murder of now 140,000 in Syria is roundly condemned; the new Egyptian leaders are encouraged to pursue a more democratic and open regimes; and Iran continues to receive idle threats. At moments like this it is always simple to return, sadly, to the reliably festering problem in the region: Israel and her neighbors.
For Israel and the Palestinians, Secretary Kerry’s set of proposals, which should be revealed shortly, are likely to be dead on arrival. Israel will push and renege, while the Palestinians will agree to action and do nothing until Israel acts. Sadly the question will be whether Kerry can and will keep the talks going. The Obama team has so few signs of success in the foreign policy arena, as it watches America’s years in Iraq go up in smoke and the imminent withdrawal from Afghanistan. All they have left is the Israelis and the Palestinians who are talking — at some level.