President Barack Obama took the Arab world by surprise on Wednesday by telephoning Mahmud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority, to assure him that he intended “to work with him as partners to establish a durable peace” in the Middle East.
The welcome news was given to the media by Abbas’ spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina. He quoted Obama as saying: “This is my first phone call to a foreign leader and I’m making it only hours after I took office.”
This unexpected development will do a great deal to raise spirits in the Arab and Muslim world. Palestinians have suffered dreadfully from the Bush administration’s uncritical support for Israel over the past eight years. On the West Bank, Israel’s illegal settlements have continued to push relentlessly into Palestinian territory, while over-crowded, suffering Gaza has just endured a brutal three-week war which killed over 1,300 helpless civilians, wounded another 5,000, and smashed much of the infrastructure.
Disappointment was therefore acute when Obama failed to mention the Arab-Israeli conflict in his inauguration address on Tuesday, although the conflict lies at the very heart of the Arab and Muslim world’s quarrel with America. He made no reference to the war in Gaza, which has so recently held the world’s anguished attention. It was as if it had never happened.
For Americans, President Barak Obama’s inaugural address last Tuesday was undoubtedly a much-needed morale-booster, but for many outside the United States it was a disappointment. On foreign policy it was especially weak, setting no clear agenda. Even stylistically, the speech seemed labored and cliché-ridden, with hardly a memorable phrase. This was not Obama at his scintillating best.
There was a line in the speech about leaving Iraq; another about “forging a hard-earned peace in Afghanistan” -- whatever that may mean; a vague reference to “seeking a way forward with the Muslim world” on the basis of “mutual interests and mutual respect”; and, in what was perhaps a coded reference to Iran, a promise that America would “work with old friends and former foes” in reducing the nuclear threat.
Obama’s speech -- more sermonising than substance -- was in great contrast to that delivered the previous day by UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, as he stood in Gaza against the backdrop of the still smoking rubble of UNRWA’s headquarter building and main warehouse. Ban denounced Israel’s bombing of these facilities as scandalous and unacceptable. He demanded accountability for its possible war crimes. With evident emotion, he urged the Palestinians to unite in order to realize their dream of statehood, which he pledged do his utmost to promote.
On Wednesday, the Washington Post reported that Obama would appoint former Senator George Mitchell, 75, as his Middle East envoy, with special reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Of Irish-Lebanese parentage, Mitchell is known as a man of integrity who helped negotiate the Good Friday agreement in Northern Ireland, which opened the way to peace in the troubled province.
But, if he is to break the deadlock in the Middle East, Mitchell will need muscular White House backing. Obama’s call to Mahmud Abbas suggests that he might get it. The Arabs have long had reason to be disappointed by incoming American Presidents who have rarely shown any willingness to confront the strongly pro-Israeli Congress, or to challenge the Israeli lobby which, in its multiple forms from AIPAC to the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, shaped America’s Middle East policy in the Bush era.
Yet, Obama knows the facts. In the early stages of his election campaign he was bold enough to say that no one had suffered like the Palestinians. He said then that one could support Israel without embracing Likud’s expansionist policies. In 2003, he opposed the war in Iraq and lashed out at pro-Israeli officials like Paul Wolfowitz, who had pressed feverishly for the overthrow of Saddam Hussein.
No hint of these sentiments figured in his inaugural address. Instead, he delivered a warning that America was at war with “a far-reaching network of violence and hatred.” To Arabs and Muslims, this sounded like a re-make of George W. Bush’s discredited ‘Global War on Terror,’ raising fears that Obama would not make a clean break with the past.
It is not yet clear how Obama intends to honour his pledge -- given at the start of his election campaign -- to travel to a major Islamic venue in the first 100 days of his presidency in order to deliver the message that “America is not at war with Islam.” The rumour in Washington is that Jakarta is the venue he has chosen for this mission. Indonesia is a largely Muslim country, but not an Arab one. It is where Obama lived as a boy from 1967 to 1971. By going there, he might hope to temper Muslim hostility, but without arousing the furious opposition of Israel and its many supporters in the United States.
Words, however, will not be enough. If Obama’s message is to carry any weight, he will need to move from words to deeds. The massacre in Gaza has aroused great anger among Arabs and Muslims, and caused dismay in much of the world. If Obama wishes to restore America’s leadership and dampen the fires of Arab and Islamic radicalism, he will have to make clear that America will no longer tolerate Israel’s wars and the cruel oppression of its captive Palestinian population.
With his phone call to Mahmud Abbas, Obama has now sent a strong signal that he is deadly serious about wanting to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Some observers hope for even more. They would like him to make a public statement -- before Israel’s general elections on 10 February -- that he will work for the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital.
Only such a bold announcement from the White House might serve to rein in Israel’s ultra-nationalists and land-grabbing settlers, and encourage the emergence of an Israeli peace coalition. But such is the triumphalist mood of the Israeli electorate that no such outcome can realistically be expected from the Israeli elections.
In the meantime, much remains to be done on the ground. The fragile ceasefire needs to be consolidated, which means -- at the very least -- a dialogue with Hamas. The Israeli siege of Gaza must be lifted. Above all, the Palestinians must end the crippling feud between Fatah and Hamas, and form a united government empowered to negotiate with Israel. For such a new Palestinian leadership to emerge, legislative and presidential elections will need urgently to be held in both the West Bank and Gaza. As Ban Ki-moon rightly declared, only if the Palestinians can overcome their differences, can their hopes for statehood be realised.
Israel’s war in Gaza looks increasingly like a colossal strategic blunder. Far from destroying Hamas, it has given it legitimacy. Far from splitting the Arabs it has united them. Far from achieving greater deterrence, it has driven the Arabs -- and Iran -- to look urgently to their defences. Far from improving its international image, Israel is now viewed by much of the world as a rogue state, unchecked by international law or common morality.
Containing Israel -- pushing it back to its pre-1967 borders and curbing its homicidal tendencies – has now become an international obligation. Obama knows that he cannot escape this responsibility.
Patrick Seale is a leading British writer on the Middle East, and the author of The Struggle for Syria; also, Asad of Syria: The Struggle for the Middle East; and Abu Nidal: A Gun for Hire.