Obama’s views on Israel, Iran, Syria and Lebanon
It is only a few weeks since Barack Obama’s arrival in the White House was hailed across the Arab world as a time of rare hope and promise.
Expectations were always exaggerated – in part because of the sheer relief that the Bush years were finally over. Still, there have already been some memorable moments: the new president’s pledge to Muslims of a new relationship based on “mutual interest and mutual respect”; the swift closure of the Guantánamo Bay detention camp – a toxic symbol of the worst excesses of Bush’s “war on terror” – and the announcement of a timetable for the final US withdrawal from Iraq.
Anger at Obama’s silence during the Gaza war before he entered the White House on 20 January was partially tempered by the appointment of George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy two days into his presidency. If the veteran Democrat could succeed in the treacherous labyrinth of Northern Ireland, the argument went, perhaps he could pull off the same extraordinary trick with Israelis and Palestinians.
No one in the region disputes that a policy of US engagement is better than containment. Obama’s “outstretched” hand has already dispatched two senior officials to Syria for the first time in four years. Even Iran, the toughest nut to crack, has been subject to a cautious (though still indirect) charm offensive, including today’s video message, coupled with warnings that Tehran’s alleged quest for nuclear weapons and support for terrorist groups are unacceptable.
Overall, though, the US tone has changed more than any substance. The state department assured Lebanon that it had nothing to fear from American-Syrian rapprochement. And it let it be known that it was not pleased with Britain’s (unusually independent) decision to talk to what the Foreign Office called the “political wing” of Hezbollah. The US position remains that it will deal only with groups that recognise Israel: Hassan Nasrallah, Hezbollah’s leader, quickly made clear that he would do no such thing. US thinking on Hamas lags behind the swelling volume of calls in Europe for dialogue with the Palestinian Islamist movement.
Predictably, Arab disappointment has been greatest on Palestine, always the most contentious issue of all. On Hillary Clinton’s maiden Middle East tour, the secretary of state pulled her punches, characterising the Israeli demolition of Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem as merely “unhelpful” – though she did also insist that progress towards a Palestinian state was “inescapable”. The administration has underlined its concern for Israel’s security but has not called explicitly for a settlement freeze.
“The new American diplomacy led by Hillary Clinton with a soft face will not be less evil than that of Condoleezza Rice,” was the gloomy conclusion of Mustafa Sami in Egypt’s (state-owned) al-Ahram. Obama had “failed his first test in the Middle East, proving to the Arabs he could neither be neutral nor capable of adopting balanced positions at the level of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict nor of exiting the blockade imposed by extremist Jewish gangs working for Israel in the United States,” he said.
Now, with the imminent prospect of a hawkish Likud-led government under Binyamin Netanyahu in Israel, and the ultra-nationalist, anti-Arab Avigdor Lieberman as his foreign minister, Arabs fear that there will turn out to be little difference from the Bush years.
“For the Obama administration, the most serious challenge is not Syria, Hamas or Hezbollah but Israel, its closest Middle East ally,” argued another Egyptian commentator, Ayman El-Amir. “Israel wants territorial expansion as well as peace based on military pre-eminence and US pressure on the Arabs and the distraught Palestinians. The problem is that both Israel and the US know well the limits of any effective pressure the administration can bring to bear on its close ally, compared to that it can exercise on its vulnerable Arab interlocutors.”
Obama, warned the Lebanese political scientist Karim Makdisi, has “apparently already betrayed Palestinians and any hope of a negotiated solution.”
Not surprisingly, Arab opinion-formers focused intently on the decision of the former American ambassador Charles “Chas” Freeman not to accept his appointment as chairman of the US National Intelligence Council – a move he attributed to a campaign waged against him by pro-Israel lobbyists (even if it was also because of his record in defending repression in China). For Jihad al-Khazen, the influential columnist for the Saudi-owned al-Hayat, this proved conclusively that “Barack Obama is caving to the Israeli lobby”.
Still, the affair generated some self-criticism as well: “The Zionist lobby did not commit a violation by exercising what it regards as its natural right to serve Israeli interests,” commented Abdul Rahman Al-Rashed of the al-Arabiya TV network. “In this case it is the absent lobby that is at fault, that is the Arab lobby, which has failed in serving its own interests for 30 years. There is nothing to prevent the establishment of an Arab lobby but the problem is that the Arabs themselves are split into factions and cannot form a group to express their position and serve their interests.”
Signs are that unless US policy towards Israel, especially on the key issue of West Bank settlements, hardens significantly, Obama’s Arab honeymoon will prove short-lived. Relations between the president and Netanyahu will be closely scrutinised.
“Colonialism is either legal or illegal, acceptable or criminal,” suggested the eloquent Rami Khouri in Beirut’s Daily Star. “Laws matter or they don’t matter. There is no such thing as ‘unhelpful’ colonialism, any more than there is merely naughty rape, awkward murder, or unfortunate incest. Why is it that those in the west who celebrate and seek to export their commitment to the rule of law find it so hard to adopt both the rhetoric and policies that acknowledge the criminal illegality and political catastrophe that is the modern and continuing Israeli colonial rampage? What is it that makes giants in the west become eunuchs in the face of Israeli deeds?”
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Tags: American Middle East Policy, Obama