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January 28, 2009

Obama Raises Hopes of
Mideast Experts

by Jim Lobe

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 start."

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 appropriate."

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 follow.

(Inter Press Service)


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    Jim Lobe, works as Inter Press Service's correspondent in the Washington, D.C., bureau. He has followed the ups and downs of neo-conservatives since well before their rise in the aftermath of the September 11, 2001 attacks.

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