US National Security Adviser James Jones hardly stirred the air when touched down at various Middle East locations last week. Few paid attention to the dry statement by NSC spokesman Mike Hammer that in Riyadh Gen. Jones "will discuss the full range of regional challenges and opportunities at this critical time in the Middle East."
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's sources disclose that Gen. Jones' talks with Saudi leaders on Jan. 11 were designed to get the ball rolling for Barack Obama's latest initiative for opening up paths of diplomatic engagement in the Yemeni and the Israel-Palestinian conflicts – for starters.
The working hypothesis shared by Obama and Saudi King Abdullah is that progress in the Middle East is predicated on cutting Iran in on every critical deal and using Syrian ruler Bashar Assad as the key to Tehran's acquiescence. The Lebanese national unity government was seen as proof that this format could work.
Assad was accordingly invited to Riyadh on Jan. 13 for a summit with the king and Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak at Jandariya, the king's private ranch outside the city, to resolve two major issues.
1. Assad would be appointed intermediary between Iran and Saudi Arabia to negotiate a ceasefire between the Sanaa government and the Houthi rebels in the Yemen conflict. This would free up the Yemeni and Saudi armies to focus on battling al-Qaeda's strongholds in Yemen.
On Wednesday, Jan. 20, Jeffrey Feltman, the State Department's assistant secretary for Near East affairs, testified to the Senate on Yemen: "We (the US) believe there is no solely military solution. We'd like to see a cease-fire (in Yemen)".
Since Iran fuels the Houthi rebellion, the statement was taken to mean that the Obama administration is open to understandings with Tehran – and not just on Lebanon.
Another Obama gesture toward Tehran springs holes
2. As to the Palestinian issue, the Abdullah-Assad-Mubarak summit was expected to produce Syrian pressure on Hamas political secretary Khaled Meshaal to accept a Palestinian power-sharing accord with his arch-rival, Palestinian chairman Mahmoud Abbas. This understanding was necessary to pave the way for a Palestinian delegation representing the West Bank and Gaza Strip to participate in the next round of peace talks with Israel. Mubarak was supposed to bring Abbas to the table.
All these bricks were to have been in place for another round of diplomacy, in time for Obama's Middle East envoy George Mitchell to pick up when he arrived in the region.
He went to Damascus Wednesday on Jan. 20 hoping to hear from Assad that Iran had come aboard for the Yemen and Israeli-Palestinian moves. This news would have been taken by Washington as proof that the Syria ruler was no Iranian vassal but capable of independent Middle East policy-making.
As it turned out, the Jandariya summit never took off and the Obama-Abdullah strategy sank without trace, because the Egyptian president failed to show up. Assad, who arrived Riyadh on Jan. 13, was entertained for two-and-a half days with visits to King Abdullah's stables of rare white racing camels, his thoroughbreds and his hunting falcons, while Saudi intelligence chief Prince Muqrin Bin Abdulaziz was on the phone with Egyptian intelligence minister Omar Suleiman to find out when Mubarak was coming.
But the Egyptian president shunned a US-Saudi policy initiative of which he strongly disapproved. Instead of travelling to the oil kingdom, he further tightened the siege of the Gaza Strip (See HOT POINTS of Jan. 20) until such time as its rulers, the Palestinian extremist Hamas, pledged allegiance to Cairo and expelled Tehran from its role in determining the Palestinian future.
Netanyahu uses the chance to add to Israel's West Bank holdings
Mitchell came away from his visit to Damascus empty-handed with not much more to show from his talks in Jerusalem and Ramallah, on Jan. 20 and 21.
A few hours before he arrived in Jerusalem, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu and his defense minister Ehud Barak took advantage of the Jandariya flop to embark on a course they had sworn to avoid, i.e. sketch the permanent boundaries dividing Israel from a future Palestinian state.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly's political sources stress that the Netanyahu administration has liaised closely with President Mubarak since taking office a year ago.
Wednesday morning, Jan. 21, Barak gave the college in the northern West Bank town of Ariel, the biggest Israeli urban center in Samaria, its long-sought accreditation as a university center. This was taken as a symbolic gesture acknowledging that the Samaria settlement bloc would remain part of Israel in any future peace accord.
That same afternoon, the prime minister announced Israel would maintain a military presence in the Jordan Valley even after the establishment of a Palestinian state. "We cannot afford to allow high-trajectory rockets to be fired from the West Bank" into Israel, he explained, referring to the possibility of Syria smuggling rockets into a future Palestinian state.
This sudden concern for the future, when day by day Hamas and Hizballah are allowed to smuggle rockets and missiles into bases poised on Israel's border was a piece of opportunism on Netanyahu's part.
It was a message to Washington to accompany the signal from Cairo that Israel will bow only so far to Barack Obama's wishes, but there was a limit.