There is sufficient evidence that the Obama administration intends to--is even determined to--change its image in the Middle East by pursuing an alternative approach to that of the previous administration.
The question remains, however, whether the US president will know how, and if he indeed can.
The appointment of George Mitchell as envoy; recent active Middle East diplomacy including Washington summit meetings with significant regional leaders; and the forthcoming visit of US President Obama himself to the region including a much-anticipated speech in Cairo are all positive, serious indications.
In addition, the content of that diplomacy indicates some positive changes, including public admonishments that Israel must stop all settlement construction in line with its obligations under the roadmap. These moves have, in turn, generated healthy debate both in Israel and among the American Jewish community on the one hand, and among Palestinians and other Arabs, on the other hand.
Optimists and pro-peace groups on both sides have been encouraged by these developments. Others warn of the serious challenges facing Obama. First, how will the new administration handle the situation in Iraq? As long as the Arab people continue to see the United States as an occupying power, there will be doubts as to whether or not these verbal and rhetorical changes can make a difference.
In addition, US friends and allies in the region are among the least democratic and popular, having failed at social and economic development. The US is perceived as the power propping up these regimes. Washington's association with these regimes and complete absence of dialogue with the rest of the Arab world will also limit the extent to which this administration can improve its image and relations.
The other serious challenge that the new administration has is to materialize its positions toward Israel. Despite the administration's clear demand for a complete halt to settlement construction, Israel is still expanding settlements, increasing the number of settlers and consolidating its occupation. These opposing positions will ultimately jeopardize Washington's credibility.
President Obama is in a unique position to make a difference in this regard. He enjoys a high level of support, not only from the American public but from the American Jewish community. In addition, he also has vast popularity overseas, which allows him to mobilize international support around the idea that Israel continues to violate the terms of reference of the peace process and the requests and expectations of its main ally--one responsible for both Israel's superiority and its existence. Ultimately, there may be a price to be paid in this relationship. - Published 1/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Ghassan Khatib is coeditor of the bitterlemons family of internet publications. He is vice-president for community outreach at Birzeit University and a former Palestinian Authority minister of planning.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Obama's learning curve
by Yossi Alpher
US President Barack Obama continued his crash course on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict last week. He held an oval office meeting with Palestinian Authority President and PLO leader Mahmoud Abbas, while his conflict team, led by George Mitchell, met in London with a high-level Israeli team to discuss settlements and outposts. As Obama internalizes the lessons of these meetings and heads for Riyadh and Cairo this week, the prospects are perhaps not as good as he may have hoped. The reasons, not surprisingly, have to do with domestic politics and poor leadership.
In his US visit, Abbas once again showed why he is so ineffective. His most telling comments, to Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post, presented a leader who acknowledges having turned down Ehud Olmert's generous final status offer of 97 percent of the territories, acceptance of the principle of the right of return, and the actual return of thousands to Israel. Worse, Abbas now intends to sit tight and do nothing until the Netanyahu government falls, because (human rights advocates, take note) "in the West Bank we have a good reality. . . the people are living a normal life." True, the PA's security performance in the West Bank is impressive. Still, Abbas does not pretend to have a viable formula for dealing with Hamas in Gaza or even for healing the wounds within his own party, Fateh.
Perhaps worst of all, Abbas--like all Palestinian politicians I have ever met--expressed his abysmal ignorance of the way Washington works when he said, "Americans can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, 'You have to comply with the conditions.'" If only it were that simple. Netanyahu supporters who were dismayed that Abbas and Obama seemed so much more comfortable with one another than did Netanyahu and Obama are evidently no more knowledgeable than Abbas about things American.
It is the settlements issue where the Obama administration has clearly set out to move the Israeli-Palestinian conflict into a groove from which both a negotiating process and regional movement can begin. Indeed, it is only the settlements issue where Obama has a clear mandate to pressure Israel, and justifiably so.
Here the protestations voiced by Netanyahu and his supporters are pathetic. The previous American president, George W. Bush, mistakenly allowed prime ministers Sharon and Olmert, both of whom took dramatic steps to try to mitigate the conflict, to avoid fulfilling Israel's solemn commitments to freeze settlements and remove outposts. Netanyahu, who won't even endorse the two-state solution, thinks he can do the same, and with a president who appears to have a far wiser grasp of the Middle East. His and Defense Minister Ehud Barak's protests about the need to allow for "natural growth" defy logic. Not only do the settlers abuse "natural growth" to create infrastructure for expansion. In any other Israeli community except a settlement, when affordable housing and nursery schools aren't available, those in need of them turn to other, less developed communities: they move.
Nor does the argument of Netanyahu's emissaries that excessive US pressure regarding settlements will bring down the coalition ring true: all those newly sworn-in members of Knesset and ministers from the right-wing parties of the coalition are in no hurry to leave office so quickly, even if it means swallowing a genuine settlement freeze. Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Mitchell should keep up the pressure, if not for Abbas' sake--he hardly deserves it--then to ensure that Israel does not overextend itself so far under the influence of messianic fanatics and weak leaders that it cannot remain a Jewish state.
But there is an American leadership angle, too. Across the Middle East, we and our Arab and Iranian neighbors watched closely the Obama reaction to the North Korean nuclear test and missile launches. This is the new president's first crisis, the one Vice-President Joe Biden famously promised him would appear during his first six months in office. So far, the US response leaves a lot to be desired, with Obama seemingly emerging as all talk and no action. Ultimately, no amount of inspiring rhetoric of the sort we'll hear in Cairo on June 4 can make up for an inability or an unwillingness to back up the president's good ideas with deeds.- Published 1/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Yossi Alpher is coeditor of the bitterlemons.org family of internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.
A PALESTINIAN VIEW
Abbas speaks for himself alone
an interview with Ahmad Yousef
bitterlemons: There are many reports in the press that the Obama administration is pressuring Israel to stop building settlements. What is Hamas' reaction to this?
Yousef: I believe that Obama insists on this issue because it's the key to the two-state solution. If the Israelis don't stop their colonialism, then the principle [of two states] will no longer exist. The Obama administration is serious about this, because it is the minimum that Obama can use to convince the Arab world--otherwise the entire Palestinian cause is dead.
bitterlemons: When Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas met with US President Obama in Washington, he presented an initiative, one that hasn't been described publicly yet. Is Hamas aware of its points, and what is Hamas' reaction to these?
Yousef: No matter what the details of this initiative, as long as it wasn't proposed and discussed by all of the Palestinian factions, it represents the vision of Abbas or [Palestinian negotiator Yasser] Abed Rabbo and is completely rejected by all of the factions, including Fateh and Hamas.
As far as I know, the initiative includes a renunciation of the [Palestinian refugees'] right of return. Abbas confirmed in his initiative that he does not insist on the right of return for all Palestinians, but rather only some of them. This is completely rejected by all Palestinians.
bitterlemons: Three of Hamas' fighters in the West Bank were recently killed, one by Israeli forces and two by the Palestinian police. How does Hamas view these developments, particularly concerning the Ramallah government? At what time will Hamas end its policy of not directly confronting security forces in the West Bank?
Yousef: I believe what happened yesterday is a blow to the dialogue project in Cairo. The scene yesterday reminds the public of the chaos that the Palestinian security forces used to implement in Gaza before Hamas' takeover. The coordination between Palestinian security and the Israeli occupation is shameful and not at all acceptable. The Palestinian Authority in Ramallah considers it honorable but the people reject it. Targeting the Palestinian resistance on behalf of the enemy is a black mark in the history of Abbas, and [Palestinian Prime Minister Salam] Fayyad as well. In addition, what happened will enhance the separation of Gaza and Ramallah.
I believe every fighter wanted by the occupation has the right to resist arrest. Unfortunately, the security apparatuses in the West Bank are collaborating with the occupation against Palestinian resistance groups--either by arresting them, torturing them or assassinating them. Therefore, every fighter has the right to protect himself by any means and resist the arrest.
It's unbelievable that the wanted Palestinian fighter who fights the occupation then becomes wanted and targeted by Palestinian security, which should instead help and protect him.
bitterlemons: How can the Obama administration positively impact the dialogue in Cairo? Or is this impossible as long as the three Quartet demands--that Hamas renounce violence, accept the Oslo accords, and recognize Israel--are in place?
Yousef: Obama's administration can play a very important and effective rule in the reconciliation process in Cairo. This could happen if [the Americans] send positive signals to the Egyptians, asking them to encourage the dialogue. Also, Obama can ask Abbas to accept dialogue without pre-conditions, so that it moves faster and is more meaningful.
The Quartet conditions will not help reconciliation. We have said many times that nobody has the right to decide the future of Palestinians on their behalf, and that the international community should have accepted the results of the last Palestinian legislative elections. But if these conditions are still there, then this means that Obama's administration is not serious in solving the conflict--neither the internal one nor that with the Israelis.
Any move to solve the conflict and find a solution cannot be achieved without dealing with Hamas in any forthcoming political formulation because this is the choice of the Palestinian people.
bitterlemons: The Obama administration appears to be trying to engage the Islamic world instead of engaging the usual Arab leaders. How does Hamas view this perspective? Can it bring progress in the peace process?
Yousef: This reconciliation must be conducted with the Muslim nations, not only with their leaders. These nations need to hear new language different from the language of threats used by [former US President George W.] Bush against the Muslim world. Obama must declare an end to these threats and announce the beginning of a new relationship with the Muslim world. He must work on changing the ugly face of America.
On the other hand, the Palestinian cause lies at the heart of all issues in the Muslim and Arab world. To achieve reconciliation, Obama must work to solve this issue and find a just solution based on the establishment of an independent Palestinian state on the 1967 borders, with Jerusalem as its capital. - Published 1/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Dr. Ahmed Yousef is political adviser at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Gaza.
AN ISRAELI VIEW
Abbas seizes opportunity to throw away opportunity
by Barry Rubin
Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas squandered a great opportunity and US President Barack Obama received a terrific lesson from their meeting. Abbas showed that he, like his predecessors, would never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity. Here is a new American president, the potentially most pro-Palestinian chief executive in history, straining at the bit to move forward a peace process, quite open to the possibility of pressuring Israel.
And Abbas gave him nothing.
"I am confident that we can move this process forward," Obama said after meeting Abbas. One would expect he's less confident now than before the meeting.
On one point, Abbas can expect US support: pressing Israel to stop any building whatsoever in Jewish settlements. But how much effort will the United States put into this when Abbas--rather than being cooperative with the president's pet project--refuses to talk with Israel unless there is a total freeze.
He could have tried to portray himself (falsely) as flexible and eager for peace. After all, the president used such phrases as, "We can't continue with the drift....We need to get this thing back on track....We don't have a moment to lose." But now, Abbas has played his hand: Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu is ready to talk and the Palestinian Authority isn't.
As for Abbas' pet project, unity with Hamas, Obama was not supportive of the PA's strategy. It would be nice to have unity, said Obama--a mistake, but leave that aside for the present--but any coalition would have to accept all previous agreements and the Quartet's conditions. And that Hamas will never do.
Reportedly, Abbas' plan said nothing about what the PA would do to promote peace, only proposing an immediate freeze on any settlement activity and a timetable for Israeli withdrawal. In other words, Israel gives him everything and he gives nothing. One can only wonder whether, during the meeting, it occurred to Obama and his advisors that Abbas was acting precisely the way Netanyahu had predicted.
Obama did mention to Abbas such Israeli requirements--and Quartet demands--that the PA reduce anti-Israel incitement to violence. But what could be a more indicative, almost humorously so, response than what Abbas told reporters: "I believe that if the Israelis would withdraw from all occupied Palestinian, Syrian and Lebanese land, the Arab world will be ready to have normal relationships with the state of Israel."
Israel gives up all the territory and then maybe it gets something in return.
Abbas was quoted as saying: "The Americans are the leaders of the world," adding, "they can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, 'You have to comply with the conditions.'"
And that's the Palestinian strategy: America tells Israel to make all the concessions. The PA accepts them. In a real slap in the face to Obama, Abbas said he wouldn't even help presidential envoy George Mitchell by delivering any confidence-building measures. Nobody could have put this better than Washington Post Deputy Editorial Page Editor Jackson Diehl: "[Abbas] has revived a...Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while the Arabs passively watch and applaud." I would only suggest that no revival is involved since this fantasy never dissipated in the first place.
A PA official has been quoted as saying that after a couple of years, US pressure will force Netanyahu to resign and presumably comply with whatever the United States, or rather whatever the PA, wants. Note that this "patience" not only clashes with Obama's impatience but also with supposed Palestinian suffering. After all, the idea was that Palestinians are so miserable under "occupation," so eager to escape bloodshed and so passionately yearning for a state they just cannot wait.
What Abbas' behavior shows, however, is that the PA is more interested in making peace with a radical Islamist Hamas than with Israel; more hopeful of eventually destroying Israel than of making peace with Israel. The meetings must have been quite a learning experience for President Obama, the first lesson in his education that making peace is not so easy and that the main obstacle to achieving it is the Palestinian leadership.- Published 1/6/2009 © bitterlemons.org
Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. His latest books are "The Israel-Arab Reader" (seventh edition) and "The Long War for Freedom: The Arab Struggle for Democracy in the Middle East" (Wiley).
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Bitterlemons.org is an internet newsletter that presents Palestinian and Israeli viewpoints on prominent issues of concern. Each edition addresses a specific issue of controversy. Bitterlemons.org maintains complete organizational and institutional symmetry between its Palestinian and Israeli sides.