Sunday, July 27, 2008

Analysts express mixed reactions to Obama’s ME visit

Deya Abaza
Daily News Egypt

CAIRO: Arab reactions to the regional visit of presidential hopeful Barack Obama have been mixed due to his emphasis on cementing his credentials as a true friend of Israel and comments he made while meeting Israeli officials. Arriving late Tuesday night and departing Thursday morning, the Democratic candidate, however, did pay a visit to the Palestinian Authorities at their headquarters in Ramallah.

Obama met with both President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salam Fayyad, stressing that the US would play an active role in the peace process from the very start of his mandate and create an independent Palestinian state.

Obama has also criticized Israeli settlement construction in the West Bank. In an interview, published Friday, with the daily Jerusalem Post newspaper, he is quoted as saying that ‘’aggressive settlement construction would seem to violate the spirit at least, if not the letter’’ of previous agreements.

Obama tells the paper that if Israel wants to keep land in the West Bank for security reasons, it should ‘’consider whether getting that buffer is worth the antagonism of the other party.’’ He says to achieve, ‘’there’s going to have to be some give’’ on both sides.

This offered a stark contrast to his Republican rival John McCain, who did not pause in the West Bank on his March visit to Israel.

“It gave us opportunity to get to know him first hand, and leads us to hope that, unlike the current administration, Obama as president would dedicate more time to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, and not just focus on Iraq,”

Ambassador Hesham Youssef, chief of staff of the Secretary General of the Arab League, told Daily News Egypt.

But details of the Senator’s visit hamper Arab enthusiasm, notably the brevity of Obama’s 45 minute-long visit to the Palestinian headquarters and the fact that a joint press conference was not held afterwards.

Youssef Barghouti of the Palestinian Legislative Council told BBC World on Thursday night that Obama had blatantly not “balanced his time” between the Israelis and the Palestinians, adding that he did not visited a single Palestinian village.

This may have some connection to his failure to elaborate on previous statements he had made in June regarding Jerusalem, which he later reiterated to an Israeli audience during his much longer visit to Israel.

He pledged that Jerusalem would “remain the undivided capital of Israel,” although modifying his past statement to add that the final decision would have to be the outcome of negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.

This statement has been the single most controversial element of his visit.

Palestinians have reacted defensively, highlighting the senator’s impotence.

In a Thursday interview, Oraib Al Rantawy, director of the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, told Al Jazeera: “Obama has no right to promise something he does not own.”

Qassem Ali, CEO of Ramattan Palestinian News Agency, echoed this opinion: “Everybody when they come to Israel says such things, but Obama does not have the power to change the contested status of Jerusalem. All such statements are doing is adding to the aggravation and hatred of the Arabs and Palestinians towards the US,” he told Daily News Egypt.

If such reactions do not betray fear, they nonetheless reveal a certain disappointment.

Indeed, the core of the issue seems to be that many Arabs had harbored secret hopes that Obama’s Kenyan Muslim lineage and his African American identity might make him more sympathetic to them.

His pronounced favoritism towards Israel during his visit, although expected, extinguished that faint glimmer of hope. Atef Al Ghamry, former chief of Al-Ahram bureau in Washington, DC, explains that such hopes were bound to be dashed, as the policy of an American presidential candidate is not dictated by his personal background, but rather a complex web of political forces, institutions and establishments.

Qassem Ali adds that, if Obama’s background affected his approach at all, it meant that he had to vehemently reaffirm his commitment to Israel during his visit to appease fears of the Jewish Lobby back home, who regard him with suspicion precisely due to his background.

“His middle name might be Hussein, his father might be Muslim, but he is a staunch supporter of Israel: that is his message,” said Al Jazeera International Senior Political Analyst Marwan Bishara on Thursday.

Analysts on various television news channels said that essentially, the goal of this trip was to demonstrate the young senator’s ability to handle foreign policy issues, to assuage any fears of interest groups and electors back home — particularly the influential Jewish Lobby and thus win votes.

Dazzling the Israelis is a bonus. Disappointing the Palestinians, if he managed to do so, is also a marginal issue. Arabs and Palestinians were not meant to be the primary audience for his visit, the analysts surmised.

People in the region must be cautious in the conclusions they draw from having observed the Democratic candidate last week. Nothing he has said or done can help predict what an Obama administration might do, because should he win the election, his policies as president are, as Al Ghamry explains, likely to be constrained by complexities yet to be reckoned with.

Obama himself is sober about the obstacles he is likely to face: it is “unrealistic to expect that a US president alone can suddenly snap his fingers and bring about peace in this region,” he said earlier on Tuesday.

1 comment:

Abe Bird said...

Arabs! what more do you expect?