Press Confused by Obama’s Middle East Priorities

Newspapers wonder why the president still bothers with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

While civil war in Syria drags on and Egypt, a critical American ally in preserving a favorable balance of power in the Middle East, is engulfed in political turmoil after an army coup deposed the elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, the United States seem to be focusing their diplomatic efforts on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Mark Landler and Jodi Rudoren reported for The New York Times last week that the renewed peace initiative had raised “questions about the Obama Administration’s priorities at a time of renewed regional unrest.” Although even administration officials “no longer argue, as they did early in President Obama’s first term, that ending the Israeli occupation and creating a Palestinian state is the key to improving the standing of the United States in the Middle East,” Secretary of State John Kerry has made five trips to the region in the last three months and attempted to resuscitate the peace process.

The Times cites a few hopeful diplomats who believe that Israel and the Palestinians might be more inclined to do a peace deal while the region is in such crisis. But there has been no indication that either party is more willing to compromise. Indeed, while Israel hasn’t changed its position, Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas recently demanded that it not only seize settlement construction in the West Bank but recognize the borders of a future Palestinian state before negotiations could even commence. Israel insists that is what negotiations are for.

President Obama has made similar demands of Israel, raising the possibility that his attempts at forwarding the peace process have only hardened the Palestinians in their resolve.

The New York Times, which twice endorsed Obama, didn’t overtly criticize the president for perhaps confusing America’s priorities in the Middle East. The Washington Post, not a very conservative newspaper either, did on Monday, arguing that while “Egypt is collapsing into chaos and Syria’s civil war rages unabated,” Kerry’s diplomacy “provokes more than a little head scratching among diplomats from the Middle East.”

The Post recognized, however, that the United States might have less influence in Egypt and Syria than in Israel and Palestine. Egypt’s army receives some $1.3 billion in financial aid from the United States every year but threatening to suspend it, even temporarily, is unlikely to affect the generals’ behavior — if the Americans even wanted to. In Syria, Obama is reluctant to expand support for the rebels battling the regime of President Bashar Assad who might be an Iranian ally but is also a secular dictator fending off an increasingly radicalized insurgency in which it is difficult to find worthwhile collaborators.

Which is not to say all the attention for the Israeli-Palestinian issue has much merit. But the lack of deeper involvement in Egypt and Syria isn’t necessarily a reflection of “failing” American leadership either. The president doesn’t want to be drawn into a sectarian war in Syria nor can he strongarm Egypt’s army into doing whatever he wants it to do. Critics of the administration may be right to question what John Kerry is doing; they also risk overestimating the extent to which the United States can influence events elsewhere.