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US & The Middle East
By Micah Halpern

Monday May 23,2011


The United States simply does not understand the Middle East. It doesn't make a difference who holds the reins of power - the past few administrations have not understood the Middle East and neither does this administration. From the president to the West Wing, from the State Department to ambassadors on the ground -- the Middle East remains elusive and misunderstood.

As a result, US foreign policy in the Middle East has, for decades, been an abysmal failure. America's leaders have come up with one catch-all solution for almost every problem in the Middle East. Riots and uprisings - throw money. Tensions and terrorist attacks - throw money. Poverty and poor schooling and an undeveloped economy - throw money. Everyone in the Middle East wants and accepts US dollars, but no one wants to be the "front" to advance US interests.

So the United States throws out more and more money with little expectation of return on their dollar.

Meetings are arranged, leaders gather, agendas are set, requests are made – and Middle East leaders shake their heads in agreement and smile through photo ops and then return home with filled coffers and unfulfilled commitments. And the United States, rather than castigating these countries, calls for another round of meetings and offers more money.

Money is leverage - or it could be if the United States chose to use it as such. The United States wants to bring about change in the Middle East but is fearful of using their clout to make demands on the monarchs and rulers and leaders of countries with belief systems vastly different from Western belief systems, thought and practice. Instead, the United States backs away from making real demands on Middle East countries and from following through on agreed upon commitments.

From all Middle East countries, that is, except Israel. When it comes to Israel, the only Western country in the Middle East, the United States exerts leverage and exacts promises. With Israel and no other.

From the point of view of the United States, Israel has the most to give and the least to lose. While Egypt and Pakistan and every other country in the region feel free to disregard not only requests put to them by the United States but also the commitments they have made to the United States, Israel is held responsible for every handshake and every nuanced nod of the head. Unlike her neighbors and her enemies, Israel receives from the United States and Israel gives in return.

Mahmoud Abbas - chairman of the Palestine Liberation Organization and president of the Palestinian Authority, the political head of the newly declared national unity government between Hamas and the Palestinian Authority - knows exactly where the United States stands on the issue of Hamas. And yet, Abbas forged ahead creating a formal, political and military alliance with Hamas with the expectation of continued revenues and financial aid from the United States. Abbas has no doubt that after only minimal and pro forma hesitation, the United States will continue to funnel through regular cash infusions.

The Palestinians cannot conceive of a situation where the United States will not support the Palestinians cause. And they may be correct. Unless Congress refuses to allow monies to go to the Palestinians as long as they remain united with Hamas, the money will come.

There is a hope that Congress will stop sending funds to the new Palestinian unity government, but the White House is doing its best to counter the argument. Congress understands better than anyone in Washington just how dangerous a nexus with Hamas can be. But Congress is also stuck in the mire of DC decision making. They understand the tradeoff - they know that change in the Middle East requires US aid and that change in the Middle East includes peace between Palestinian and Israelis and that peace is predicated on continued aid from the United States to a group partnered with Hamas.

The White House is propelled by politics. They set goals and go about accomplishing them. Congress concentrates on history and law. It is Congress that, in a similar situation, passed the law making transfers of US aid to Hamas illegal. It will take a lot of fancy foot work and arm twisting to change that point of view - even for the Palestinians.

The United States will make concessions, but sending money to an acknowledged terrorist organization is wrong. Even if sanctioned by the president it is morally, ethically and politically wrong - and it is illegal.

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4 June 2017 12:13 PM in Columns

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