Arab reaction to Obama’s Middle East policy

By all accounts, the new American administration is moving at a frenetic pace in trying to break the seemingly interminable deadlock between Israel and the Arab world. Recent press reports suggest that George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy, is reaching a critical point in his negotiations with the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian authority.

Amid this whirlwind of activity, it is fair to say that the average Arab’s assessment of US policy is rather puzzled. Arabs have gotten used to the US government’s absolute bias towards Israel, a bias that reached its ultimate climax under the forgettable George W. Bush.

President Obama has spoken a different language. He seems genuinely focused on trying to build a bridge over the long years of mistrust between the Arab masses and the US political establishment.

This of course came to a head in Obama’s extraordinary Cairo speech, a speech of grand ambition that was historic in every sense of the word. Suddenly, it seemed that there is an American President who has at least an inkling of Palestinian suffering, and who wanted to talk of Palestinian rights on an equal footing with those of Israelis. Obama went as far as comparing the Palestinian struggle to that of African Americans in the US over the last two hundred years.

The tone and body language were of a kind that Arabs have not seen in years. The focus of the US administration on putting pressure on Israel to stop all settlement activity, as well as the language on how resolution of this conflict is the key to other conflicts in the region, was refreshingly empathetic.

Faced with this barrage of messages from the US administration, Arabs are reacting in various ways. On the one hand, you have so many who still find refuge in the safety of cynicism; nothing will ever change when it comes to US policy, the US administration is beholden to the agenda of AIPAC… Etc. Some Arab writers, whilst acknowledging the existence of some divergence in views between Israel and the current US administration, argue that signs of slight conflict do not represent the beginning of any real crisis in relations. A more resigned view also exists, which holds that Arabs are clutching at straws and, in fact, there is no real change in American policy.

On the other hand, you have a large number of optimistic Obama admirers who are convinced Obama will bring real and lasting change to this issue as he did to American politics. They have bought in wholesale into the Obama mantra which saw him declare on the eve of elections, “together, we will change the world.”

While we are strong admirers of Obama, we feel that the best approach, as always, is somewhere in the middle. There is the air of change in Washington for sure. We must acknowledge that element of change, and assess Obama’s policy regarding this issue with a sober and calm head. Most importantly, Arabs must react to this new policy with a positive and enabling attitude to ensure that we seize the momentum and guide it towards a just and fair solution.

Let us analyze in a measured manner some of the changes that the Obama administration has introduced into this issue. Firstly, the matter of continuing settlement activity was covered in great detail in the press. This was not a publicity stunt. Obama’s insistence on ceasing any expansion of Israeli settlement in the West Bank was stronger in both substance and tone than that of previous administrations. While some writers like Noam Chomsky claim that Obama did not match his words with any radical action, such as linking Israeli compliance to US aid, it is self-defeating to pretend that positions have not changed in the slightest.

Secondly, unlike George Bush, Obama has so far refused to follow Israel’s argument that the root of the problem is Iran and not occupation. Obama has clearly distinguished between the issues of Iran and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. While any nuclear proliferation is a cause of concern, it is good to see that Obama has not fallen for the trap of ignoring all the wrongs of Israel’s denial of Palestinian rights in the interest of pursuing a separate foreign policy challenge. To quote Time magazine’s Tony Karon,

“the US President won’t buy Netanyahou’s sequencing …. Netanyahou will say no progress is possible on the Palestinian front until Iran is defanged; Obama will argue that rallying Arab support against Iran’s ambitions requires resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.”

Thirdly, the US administration has introduced the sense of urgency into the necessity of salvaging the two–state solution. While this has been the position of previous administrations, the Obama team is eager to see the vision materialize with speed.

Uncertainty still reigns over many aspects of the current administration’s policies. For example, the US approach to Jerusalem is not clear at all. In a campaign speech last year to AIPAC, Obama made it clear that Jerusalem will remain the undivided capital of Israel. This seemed to deny all Palestinian rights to parts of Jerusalem in line with United Nations resolutions. Although Obama has since toned down his position in this regard, seemingly as a result of the advice of seasoned advisors like former President Jimmy Carter, he has not yet proclaimed a definitive position.

It is our view that there is some form of change taking place. This new-found flexibility in the American approach is primarily due to two interrelated factors:

Obama is first of all a man of the world who listens intently to all sides of a story. He brings a fresh analytical approach to the highest office in the US.

Secondly, this change is the result of the Obama administration’s analysis of the long term interests of the United States in the region. Certain commentators have argued that Obama’s team sees the necessity of integrating Israel into the region in order to guarantee a more secure future for its ally.

However, the issue is not the rationale behind Obama’s stance on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The question is whether there is a momentum of change, and how can Arabs seize the initiative in the interest of Palestinian rights and justice for all. We cannot sit back and let our inherent cynicism destroy the opportunity of the moment, yet again. What good is there to achieve from burying our heads in the sand and bemoaning our misfortune, yet again.

Whatever conspiracy theory one can concoct out of thin air to justify Obama’s words and actions, it is high time for a proactive approach. Real change in politics can never come from resignation and passive aggression, which have dominated Arab political emotions for the last century.

Let us try to analyze the seeming shift and see how we can contribute to any momentum and actively encourage it. It is time to believe in our own capacity to contribute to the shaping of the future of the region.

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  1. Mark
    Posted August 18, 2009 at 3:17 pm | Permalink

    In principle I agree with the authors who seem to be mesmerized by the Obama mania but I do have some reservations. The authors have mentioned three points that may put Obama on the authors’ top honors list of Presidents seeking to achieve peace in the Middle East but the fact is that these three points are marginal when it comes down to the real issues and therefore as a humble person wanting peace I would view Obama’s attitude on the Middle East peace process with cautionary optimism. Historically there was always a dead end to the peace process whenever the issue of Jerusalem or the issue of refugees reached to the negotiation table. We all remember what happened after the failure of the Clinton’s brokered Camp David Summit in year 2000; when President Arafat and Prime Minister Barak refused to compromise on the issue of Jerusalem’s sovereignty; a second catasrophic Intifada exploded leaving thousands of people dead, homeless and to this date living in dire conditions. So we all have witnessed the consequences of a failed peace process; this is enough of a reason for the people of the region to be pessimistic of any attempt to bring false hopes that there would be some sort of peace in the region. As William Shakespeare once wrote ‘having nothing, nothing can they lose’ and this is true for the Arabs of the region they have nothing left; no peace, no democracy and no prosperity. It will take many successful deeds from the Obama administration to change the negative attitude of the Arab world; a region in waiting.

  2. Dima Sari
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 1:40 pm | Permalink

    Hi Mark. I agree with your analysis and as you pointed out, the unlimited failures that faced every peace initiative can make anyone pessimistic. However, the message we are trying to convey in our article, is that we actually should stop being a region in waiting. A region in a waiting passive mode would never reach any satisfying solution as its salvation can only come from within. People who have nothing to lose, are the most courageous as they are not be crippled by the fear to lose. We are not suggesting to wait and see what Obama can do, we are calling for a proactive aggressive approach of the Arabs who should benefit from having a reasonable open person in such a critical position.

  3. Dima
    Posted August 19, 2009 at 7:25 pm | Permalink

    Good article. The title, however, is misleading. It should be changed to something along the lines of “Arab Reactions to Obama’s Handling of the Arab Israeli conflict.” US Middle East Policy covers a number of other issues such as reform, terrorism, Iraq, human rights,…etc that the authors did not touch upon. Let’s keep that reform debate alive if you please otherwise there are no Arabs, but only Arab leaders that simply brush aside all other “authors” and their words!

  4. Mark
    Posted August 23, 2009 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    Dima.S: Obama’s health care initiative is a great example of how difficult it is to transform words into action. I hope Obama will have the strength strong believe and perseverance to arm twist AIPAC, and the Israeli leadership. As for the other distinguished Dima; reform begins within!

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