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Conflict Zone

What will be Barack Obama’s policy towards the Middle East? During the campaign, this was a question that flummoxed partisans of both the Israeli and Palestinian causes. There was enough conflicting evidence of his intentions to lead everyone to believe that they would have a friend in the White House.

But now, we have actual foreign policy appointments to look at. And, guess what? They haven’t clarified the direction of his administration. In fact, there’s a chance that we will be in store for at least four more years of muddle. His administration could be split by the same internal debates that divided the Bush administration.

During the Bush administration, the State Department was the source of every call for envoys, roadmaps, summits, and efforts to revive the peace process. And for most of the Bush era, these calls were rejected by the White House and Pentagon--which believed that the Israeli-Palestinian struggle was a symptom of deeper pathologies within the Islamic and Arab world, and not the underlying cause of Middle Eastern terrorism. Within the Obama administration, this dynamic is likely to be reversed. It may be the White House--and, more specifically, the likely national security advisor, James Jones --that will be the passionate proponent of peace processing. Or, as he told the newsletter Inside the Pentagon last month, “'Nothing is more important” to regional security in the Middle East than resolving the Israeli Palestinian conflict.

Jones, the retired commandant of the Marine Corps, has significant experience in the Middle East. Last November, Condoleezza Rice appointed him as her special envoy for Middle East security, with a particular emphasis on working with the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) and Palestinian security services. Last August, he drafted a report on security in the Palestinian territories that is said to have been highly critical of Israel's policies in the territories and its attitude toward the Palestinian Authority's security services. The White House and State Department opted not to publish the report.

In August, Israel’s leading newspaper, Ha’aretz, reported that the draft report challenged Israel’s conception of its security interests in the West Bank as being overly broad, and that the IDF in particular was too dismissive of the Palestinian security services. The newspaper quoted one IDF officer as saying he expected the report would be "very harsh, and make Israel look very bad." Steve Rosen, the former director of foreign policy for AIPAC who was dismissed from his post after the federal government charged him and a colleague with leaking classified information to the press and a foreign official, told me, “In my experience, when you take a 'deep dive' into security issues in the territories, you very quickly come to tradeoffs between Israeli security and Palestinian rights. Successful counter-terror preventive and pre-emptive measures require highly intrusive intelligence collection that is onerous for the population of the area under surveillance. … A third party tries to balance Israeli security and Palestinian rights with a different valence than an Israeli security agency."

In his interview with Inside the Pentagon, Jones said that the Palestinians should be granted increasing degrees of local sovereignty over the West Bank until an independent state is born--with an emphasis on giving the Palestinians experience with governance. On Sunday, Ha’aretz reported that Jones favors dispatching a NATO force to keep the peace in the interim. That’s a plan that the Israeli government would likely fiercely resist on the grounds that the Jewish state’s defense doctrine has always spurned the presence of foreign troops on its territory and that it could be a reprise of the disasters of the U.N. mission to Lebanon.

Now, consider his potential nemesis, Hillary Clinton. It is true that there is some doubt about where she ultimately lands on the Israel-Palestine question--confusion that followed her famous hug with Suha Arafat. But since becoming senator, she’s been a persistent critic of Palestinian media and schooling, an issue that has traditionally been swept under the rug by the State Department and a central argument the Israeli right has used to warn against the delusions of the Oslo process. Clinton has described the teaching of anti-Israel views in Palestinian textbooks as "child abuse,” and held hearings on the topic in an effort to get the Bush administration to do more on the issue.

By focusing on the underlying tenets of Palestinian culture, Senator Clinton has in a way made common cause with the Bush administration hawks. While General Jones wants to take steps now to empower Abbas and his Fatah party to take over a Palestinian state, Clinton is asking if even the Palestinian moderates are ready to govern. At AIPAC’s annual policy conference in 2005, she said: "How do we expect to have a democratically elected Palestinian government if their textbooks are still preaching such hatred, and this if we allow this dehumanizing rhetoric to go unchallenged? Because what is happening is young minds are being infected with this anti-Semitism, and that is going to run counter to what we hope can happen over the next years as we do work for peace and stability."

And that’s not the only place she has voiced loudly, and with a high degree of specificity, her support for Israeli policy. She had resoundingly rejected the idea of negotiating with Hamas; she has endorsed the security fence; and she supported a resolution sponsored by Senators Kyl and Lieberman that urged the White House to designate Iran's revolutionary guard as a terrorist organization, a measure opposed by both Obama and Biden. These stances have won many fans among pro-Israel hawks. "Senator Clinton's track record during her years in the senate has been outstanding," says Malcolm Hoenlein, the executive vice chairman of the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations. "In addition to the public record, she has done many things quietly without seeking recognition that were significant in regards to the Middle East and other international concerns."

So does this mean that Jones and Clinton are on a collision course over Israel? Not necessarily. Clinton’s hawkish pronouncements may simply have been a byproduct of representing New York in the Senate. And there are hawks who trust Jones because of his work on Iraq; in 2007, when he headed a Congressional commission to assess U.S. training of the Iraqi military, he warned against setting an arbitrary deadline for removing troops.

Then again, there are many reasons to believe that these differences over the Middle East are very real. When he speaks of his faith in the peace process, Jones isn’t just mouthing the conventional wisdom of the foreign policy elite. He is speaking out of convictions born of experience on the ground. He will feel like he has unique authority to direct policy towards Palestine. Similarly, Clinton has gone much further than any previous secretary of state in her expressions of solidarity with a signature issue of the Israeli right. She has repeated these sentiments so many times that there’s reason to believe that they are more than just pandering.

With domestic policy looming so large in the coming year, few people expect Obama to immediately dive into Middle Eastern diplomacy. Even devoted peace processors have little hope of progress, given the looming Hamas-Fatah civil war. But every president always turns to the issue, in the end--and when Obama makes that move, the Jones-Clinton tensions may reprise the great Powell-Cheney fights of yore.

Eli Lake is a contributing editor at The New Republic.

By Eli Lake