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Arab Reaction to Obama’s Mideast Policy

By: Nasser Ali Khasawneh and Dima Sari, The Jordan Times

20.08.09

The new American administration is moving at a frenetic pace, trying to break the seemingly interminable deadlock between Israel and the Arab world.

Recent press reports suggest that George Mitchell, President Barack Obama’s special envoy to the Middle East, is reaching a critical point in his negotiations with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government and the Palestinian Authority.

Amid all this, it is fair to say that the average Arab is rather puzzled about the US policy.

Arabs have got used to the US government’s absolute bias in favour of Israel, bias that reached its climax under the George W. Bush. But over the past few months, 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 was topped by Obama’s extraordinary Cairo speech of grand ambition, historic in every sense of the word.

Suddenly, it seemed that there is an American president who has at least an inkling about the Palestinian suffering and who wanted to talk about the rights of the Palestinians 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 200 years.

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

Faced with this barrage of messages from the US administration, Arabs are reacting in various ways. On the one hand, there are 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 AIPAC agenda, 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, there are large numbers of optimistic Obama admirers who are convinced that the US president will bring real and lasting change to the Palestinian-Israeli issue, as he did to American politics. They have bought wholesale into the Obama mantra which saw him declare on the eve of elections: “Together, we will change the world.”

The best approach, as always, is somewhere in the middle. There is an air of change in Washington, for sure. Obama cannot be compared to the average politician. One must acknowledge the element of change, and assess Obama’s policy regarding this issue with a sober and calm head. And, most important, Arabs must react to this new policy with a positive and enabling attitude, to ensure that the momentum is seized and guided towards a just and fair solution.

Obama’s insistence on ceasing 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 cannot be said that positions have not changed in the slightest. Then, unlike Bush, Obama has so far refused to follow Israel’s argument that the root of the problem is Iran and not the occupation, showing that he clearly distinguishes between the two issues.

While nuclear proliferation is a cause of concern, it is good to see that Obama has not fallen into the trap of ignoring all the wrong done by Israel’s denial of rights to the Palestinians and pursuing a rather separate foreign policy on the two issues.

To quote Time magazine’s Tony Karon, “the US president won’t buy Netanyahu’s sequencing …. Netanyahu 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.”

Third, the US administration sees an urgent need to salvage the two-state solution. While this has been the position of previous administrations, the Obama team is eager to see the vision materialise with speed. However, 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 Palestinians right 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 advice from seasoned advisers like former president Jimmy Carter, he has not yet proclaimed a definitive position in this regard.

Some form of change is indeed taking place. This newfound flexibility in the American approach is primarily due to two interrelated factors. One is the character of the US president. Obama is 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. The other is the result of the Obama administration’s analysis of the long-term interests of the United States in the region. As several commentators have remarked, Obama’s team understands the need to have Israel integrated into the region in order to guarantee a more secure future for this vital ally that is deemed to be a cornerstone for promoting US interests in the Middle East.

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 Arabs can seize the initiative in the interest of Palestinians’ rights and justice for all. One cannot sit back and let inherent cynicism destroy the opportunity of the moment, yet again. What good is there to achieve from burying one’s head in the sand and bemoaning one’s misfortune?

It is time for a proactive approach. Real change in politics can never come from a resigned attitude, from passive aggression, which has been dominating Arab political emotions for the last century. The seeming shift has to be analysed, to see how one can contribute to any momentum and actively encourage it. It is time Arabs believe in their own capacity to contribute to the shaping of the future of the region.

The writers are lawyers based in Dubai, UAE. They contributed this article to The Jordan Times.