Public Show Over, Obama Turns to Private Diplomacy in Middle East

President Obama walks with Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Judeh, right, upon his arrival at Queen Alia International Airport in Amman, Jordan, Friday, March 22, 2013.  (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais) (National Journal)

President Obama's highly visible trip to the Middle East was seen as a timely and badly needed shot of public diplomacy in the world's most volatile region. But what happens behind the scenes and out of public view now that the president is back in the United States may be even more critical to the decades-old American quest to forge stable peace between Israel and her neighbors.

The president's goals for his visit to Israel, the West Bank, and Jordan were decidedly modest. But he did achieve them, even surprising the world on Friday when he ended a three-year stalemate between Israel and Turkey by persuading Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to telephone his Turkish counterpart and apologize for an incident that left nine Turks dead. At a very minimum, that achievement enhanced regional security, with the resumption of diplomatic relations between the two U.S. allies, whose stability is a counterweight to instability in war-torn Syria.

Now the burden falls on Secretary of State John Kerry. Newly established in Foggy Bottom, Kerry is known to be itching to become more involved in the Middle East, seeing peace there as his possible legacy. But don't expect to be hearing breathless daily reports of his efforts.

"The bottom line is, we don't really know what comes next," said Natan Sachs, a fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution. But he said it almost certainly will be "active diplomacy very much behind the scenes," a contrast to some of the showier and very public diplomacy of the past.

"The hurdles are very considerable," Sachs said. "It seems the course they are charting right now is to try to avoid big talks about first steps. So rather than having a prolonged negotiation over negotiations, they are trying to talk about substance. I suspect they are going to try to do that more privately and more behind closed doors and see where they can move on substance between the two sides."

Keeping the talks under wraps is important for two reasons. First, public opinion now actually matters in the Middle East. The days when autocratic leaders could reach agreements and impose them on their citizenry are gone in a region reshaped by the Arab Spring. And, second, the public on both sides of the divide has grown distrustful of a peace process that has failed them so often. "There is a lot of opposition on the Palestinian street to the talks themselves," Sachs said. "They see the talks as  charade and the peace process itself has been used as cover for continued occupation. So there is an advantage to having more substantive but more private talks that don't demand any public gestures by either side just yet."

The success of Obama's trip, of course, did little to tamp down long-standing Republican complaints that he should have visited Israel in his first term and should be doing more to revive the peace process. Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen, R-Fla., chairwoman of the House Foreign Affairs panel's Subcommittee on the Middle East and North Africa, contended Sunday that the president in his trip "failed to put forth a clear strategy to stabilize tensions in the region and bring both parties back to the negotiating table."

She said Obama  "fell short" in his talks with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to press him to renounce Hamas. Obama was "misguided" to suggest Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad are "true partners for peace," Ros-Lehtinen said.

The White House is convinced the United States is in a better position today because of the president's trip, arguing that the alliance with Israel has been shored up, that the right message has been sent to the region, and that Obama understands the region and will remain involved.

Despite the pressure from Congress for more dramatic signs of progress, the number of challenges in the region is daunting. With Iran's nuclear program, the fighting in Syria, and the Palestinian occupation atop the regional agenda, the very intractability of the issues themselves also contributes to a wariness about what will follow Obama's trip. "The fact is that there is not a lot that can happen," said Anthony Cordesman, who has worked on regional issues in and out of government since the 1973 Yom Kippur War and is now at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "You are not going to get some dramatic step forward on the peace process. You can't rush the negotiations with Iran. You can sustain the pressure. But the fact is that at this point in time, an awful lot of what we can do has been done."

Syria is the most immediate challenge. "But it isn't clear that there is something we can do now that would make a dramatic difference," Cordesman said. "We can't change the problems that Egypt faces. We can't restructure Iraq. And we certainly are not going to influence the election in Iran. And in terms of working with the Gulf states, I think we have already accomplished a great deal in security cooperation, and it is not clear that a high visibility presidential effort would make things better."