Helping Obama to help
May 14-20, 2009
Dina Ezzat examines the chances for Obama to make history in the Middle East
When US President Barack Obama arrives in Cairo for the first time on 4 June to deliver a speech to the Arab and Muslim worlds it will be his sixth week of grappling with the Arab-Israeli struggle. "Cairo is the capital of moderation in Islam," Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Abul-Gheit said of Obama's decision to address the world's Muslims from Cairo. He told the daily Rose El-Youssef newspaper that he hoped dialogue between the Islamic and Western worlds will help reach a settlement of the Arab-Israeli conflict that will end occupation and lead to establishing a Palestinian state.
On Monday, Obama will receive Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu. This will be the second meeting in less than a month for Obama -- who took office in late January -- on Middle East peace. The first meeting, in late April, was with King Abdullah of Jordan who carried a collective Arab message asking for Obama's prompt and direct engagement in peacemaking. On 26 and 28 May, Obama will be consecutively meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas on the same issue.
"With each of them, the president will discuss ways the United States can strengthen and deepen our partnerships as well as the steps all parties should take to help achieve peace between Israelis and Palestinians and between Israel and the Arab states," White House Spokesman Robert Gibbs said Tuesday. According to Gibbs, it is the belief of Obama that active and sustainable US engagement is essential to make Middle East peace a reality. Also according to Gibbs, it is upon the basis of a "two-state solution" that peace could be achieved.
In an interview accorded to Israeli TV Monday, following talks in Sharm El-Sheikh with Netanyahu, Mubarak confirmed that the two-state solution is the way to bring about an end to the Arab-Israeli struggle. Mubarak argued that if Israel -- as Netanyahu has been saying so far -- continued to refuse this solution that is "acknowledged by the international community", it would only prolong the cycle of violence in the Middle East.
Mubarak also expressed hope that the approach of Obama on Middle East peace would be solid enough -- and different enough from that of former US president George W Bush -- to bring about peace. "Obama is certainly different from Bush. Obama is a man who conducts business with a great deal of accuracy, realism and rationality. He consults his aides and engages his [regional] partners," Mubarak said.
The Egyptian president added: "To be able to take [the right] decision in a region like ours you need to listen to all sides. You listen to the Israelis, [but you] also listen to the Palestinians, the Egyptians, the Saudis, the Gulf States and all interested countries. This is the way for you to formulate an idea on how to embark on the road of peace."
Judging by statements of Egyptian, Palestinian and other Arab diplomats, Obama seems to be making good on his promise to pursue Middle East peace. According to one Arab diplomat based in Cairo, Obama's enthusiasm has served to narrow inter-Arab differences, especially on the extremist government of Netanyahu. The previously standard divide between Arab capitals that advocate confrontation and those who promote "engagement" with Tel Aviv is waning with both sides eager to see what Obama has to offer. Egyptian and Syrian diplomats, who usually take contrasting positions when it comes to the US and Israel, are now talking the same language.
One informed senior Arab diplomat told Al-Ahram Weekly that during their extraordinary meeting on the situation in Palestine last Thursday, Arab foreign ministers shied from even suggesting tough stances on Israel, "in order to avoid a tone, or an atmosphere, of confrontation that could pre-empt any positive position that Obama might be taking". He added that Arabs are so far comfortable with Obama's insistence on the two-state solution, despite the rejections expressed by Netanyahu. Arab diplomats repeatedly refer to the "smart decision" that Obama made by assigning the Middle East file to George Mitchell, who enjoys wide acceptance across the Arab world.
"We think that Obama wants to make history. He really does. And he knows that by a relatively fair approach towards Arabs and Israelis he has a chance to make history in the Middle East," said one senior Arab League official who preferred not to be identified. "Arab states, and in fact the Arab League, are willing to meet Obama halfway and to help him make history for himself and for the region," he said.
According to a senior Palestinian source, who spoke on condition of anonymity, the Arab League and concerned Arab capitals have been formulating a position "that is based on the Arab peace initiative" to offer to the new US administration. King Abdullah of Jordan briefed Obama on this position during their talks in April and both President Mubarak and President Abbas will further discuss the issue with him in the coming days, the source added. Further, according to an Egyptian diplomat, when Obama speaks in Cairo in June the appeal he will make for Middle East peace will largely be inspired by this Arab proposition for comprehensive peace.
Nonetheless, what Obama will say and be able to do will not necessarily be identical, Arab diplomats say. Some suggest that if Obama fails to get the peace process rolling during his first year in office it will be unlikely that he will be able to do so afterwards. The consensus, however, is that Obama has the intelligence and the faith needed to deliver peace in the Middle East, and that the Arabs are willing to do what it takes to aid this along, including overlooking Israel's obstructionist attitudes every once in a while.