A series of unexpectedly swift moves to begin
addressing the Arab-Israeli conflict taken by Barack Obama in the week since
he was sworn in as the U.S. president is being hailed by many regional specialists
who were deeply frustrated by George W. Bush's relative indifference and virtually
unconditional support for Israel.
"The speed with which he has engaged on this is really stunning,"
said Shibley Telhami, an expert on Arab public opinion at the University of
Maryland. "While it's too early to tell whether he's prepared to make
the difficult policy tradeoffs, I'd have to say that he's off to a fantastic
During his presidential campaign, Obama repeatedly promised to begin working
for Israeli-Palestinian peace "from day one" of his tenure and criticized
his predecessor for waiting until his last year in office to launch the so-called
"Annapolis process" which failed to make any tangible progress toward
resolving the critical "final status" issues.
Within 24 hours of his inauguration, he had telephoned the leaders of Egypt,
Israel, the Palestinian Authority, and Jordan apparently to reiterate that
commitment, and, one day later, announced the appointment of former Sen. George
Mitchell, who mediated the 1995 Good Friday accord that helped bring peace
to Northern Ireland, as his special envoy on Israel-Arab negotiations.
By Tuesday, Mitchell had arrived in Cairo for a "listening" tour
of the region that will include visits with those same leaders, as well as
a stop in Saudi Arabia, whose strong support for the revival of the 2002 Arab
League peace initiative is considered vital for progress.
Meanwhile, Obama gave his first television interview as president – even
before the major U.S. networks – to the Saudi-owned al-Arabiya company
Monday in which he reiterated his commitment to work on Israeli-Palestinian
peace as a priority, praised the Arab League plan, and offered a "new
partnership" with the Arab and the Muslim world "based on mutual
respect and mutual interest."
"Now, my job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a
stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to
be a language of respect," he told interviewer Hisham Melham. At the same
time, he stressed that he understood that "people are going to judge me
not by my words, but by my actions and my administration's actions."
"And I think that what you'll see is somebody who is listening, who is
respectful, and who is trying to promote the interests not just of the United
States, but also ordinary people who right now are suffering from poverty and
a lack of opportunity," he added.
While all of these steps have not yet translated into the kind of concrete
"actions" that Obama said his administration will be judged by, they
have clearly given heart to Middle East experts who felt that they had
been ignored for most of the past eight years.
"I'm accustomed to being disappointed," said retired Col. Pat Lang,
a former top Middle East intelligence analyst at the Pentagon, who had been
among the most outspoken critics of the Bush administration's neglect of the
Israel-Palestinian conflict and its refusal to take seriously Arab and Muslim
grievances about Washington's strong support for Israel.
"What I see so far seems rather hopeful; at least there's a lot of attention
being paid to the [Arab-Israeli] conflict, instead of a refusal to deal with
it. I'm willing to wait and see and hope for the best," he told IPS.
Marc Lynch, another specialist on Arab public opinion at George Washington
University, was particularly thrilled by Obama's performance on al-Arabiya,
writing on his much-read blog in Foreign Policy that ''It's impossible
to exaggerate the symbolic importance" of Obama's choice of an Arabic
satellite station for his first formal interview as president "and of
taking that opportunity to talk frankly about a new relationship with the Muslim
world based on mutual respect and emphasizing listening rather than dictating."
"I couldn't have written the script better myself," he noted, adding
that Obama's reference to "words" and "actions" showed
his appreciation that "public diplomacy is not about marketing a lousy
policy – it's about engaging honestly, publicly, and directly with foreign
publics about those policies, explaining and listening and adjusting where
Telhami, who served as an informal adviser to the Obama campaign, was similarly
impressed, noting that the new president made a number of key points that highlighted
his differences with Bush, particularly his acknowledgment that the Arab-Israeli
conflict is "central" to the region. "This is totally different
from the neoconservative view that the conflict has nothing to do with other
issues in the region [that are] important to the U.S."
Indeed, the centrality of the Arab-Israeli conflict was brought home to the
new administration late last week in the form of a stunningly blunt column
by the former Saudi ambassador, Prince Turki al-Faisal, who denounced the "sickening
legacy" left by the Bush administration in the region and its complicity
in Israel's military campaign in Gaza.
He warned that Washington's "special relationship" with the kingdom
was at risk "unless the new U.S. administration takes forceful steps to
prevent any further suffering and slaughter of Palestinians," including
promoting the Saudi-inspired Arab League initiative, which offers normalization
of relations with Israel in exchange for its withdrawal to its 1967 borders.
Lang told IPS that the column, which was published by the Financial Times,
may have played a role in the decision to grant al-Arabiya the first television
interview. "This is a deliberate gesture [by Obama] to say to the Saudis
that 'I really am serious, and I'm not fooling around,'" he said.
Indeed, Israel's three-week Gaza campaign, in which more than 1,300 Palestinians
were killed, may have spurred Obama, who declined to comment about the assault
while Bush was still president, to move more quickly than he had originally
planned to reassure Arab opinion that he considered the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict a top priority, even at a time when the country is dealing with a
major financial crisis and two wars.
"I think Gaza has had a far more profound impact than I anticipated,
and I would say there's more disbelief in the region in the possibility of
peace [with Israel] by far than a month ago," said Telhami. "Both
his actions so far and the interview would have generated much more optimism,
had the bloodshed in Gaza not taken place."
Lynch, too, had warned before the al-Arabiya interview that Gaza campaign
and the Bush administration's support for it had "poisoned the well"
for Obama in a number of ways that he would have to overcome to gain credibility
in the Arab world. "If – and only if – Obama demonstrates serious
changes in U.S. policy in the region, he will find many takers," he warned.
While the tone appears to have changed quite substantially, Obama has yet
to make clear that policy changes on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will
(Inter Press Service)