x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Flicker of hope amid flames of hate

A poll of Arab suspicion indicates that the US could improve its approval rating by withdrawing from Iraq. As Obama seeks to end the 'cycle of suspicion and discord', it also shows that the prospect of Arab-Israel ties largely hinges on the Middle East solution.

A US soldier walks past a resident during a patrol in Samarra, near Baghdad. Many Arabs believe violence will end if US occupation ends.
A US soldier walks past a resident during a patrol in Samarra, near Baghdad. Many Arabs believe violence will end if US occupation ends.

They resent America but are hopeful that President Barack Obama will change the polices that foster so much hatred for the United States in the Middle East. Their negative view of the superpower would improve if US troops withdrew from Iraq quickly and there was an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And, perhaps remarkably, the majority of Arabs seem to be prepared to make peace with Israel even after the Jewish state's sustained assault on Gaza in December.

These are some of the results of a wide-ranging public opinion survey of 4,087 Arabs in six countries, conducted by the University of Maryland with Zogby International, a polling company. It comes as Mr Obama has reached across the chasm that divides America from many Muslims with a historic speech in Cairo on Thursday that was watched by hundreds of millions of people around the region. From the spit and sawdust shisha cafes of Egypt to the razed streets of Gaza, from the glittering majlis of the Gulf states and beyond, every one of his 5,834 words was examined for clues as to how America would behave in the future and if Mr Obama would show them respect.

If America is willing to end the "cycle of suspicion and discord", as Mr Obama put it, then the results of the annual Arab Public Opinion survey, which was completed in early May, suggest that most Arabs are not as blindly anti-American as some perhaps would like to believe. Beyond the rhetoric, people are now waiting for Mr Obama to make good on his words with concrete action. Indeed, if Mr Obama is trying to find out how to improve America's standing in the region, he might be well advised to look at the results of the survey, conducted in Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.

Although 46 per cent described their view of the US as unfavourable, it is a considerable improvement from last year when 64 per cent had a negative perception of America. The change is due to Mr Obama himself, who was seen as positive by 45 per cent of respondents. "We are not at a point with the US where there is dramatic and rising expectations but there is a sense there could be change," said John Zogby, the president of Zogby International. "The persona of this man, Obama, may be radically different from [his predecessor George W] Bush but there is some reticence. Arabs may not wish to put too much emotional investment in Obama."

The poll also revealed that 73 per cent were prepared for peace with Israel if the Jewish state were willing to return territories captured in the 1967 war, including East Jerusalem, which Palestinians want as their future capital. "There is a growing recognition that Israel does exist and hardened attitudes are not a path to peace," said Mr Zogby. Some believe their governments should work to promote such a peace but 45 per cent do not believe Israel will give up the occupied territories of the West Bank easily.

Those suspicions were confirmed for many Jordanians this past week. There was outrage in the kingdom after 53 right-wing members of Israel's 120-member Knesset put forward a proposal for Jordan officially to become the homeland of the Palestinians - without bothering to ask the Jordanians. The idea is old but hugely controversial in Jordan, which has absorbed millions of Palestinian refugees over the decades.

Although Israeli officials have said the proposal does not represent the government's position - President Shimon Peres called it a "baseless hallucination" - it did little to quell the anger. "This is chutzpah actually," said Mustafa Hamarneh, the chairman of the weekly publication Al Sijill, in Amman. "They took the land of one people and want to take other people's land as well. They created the Palestinian problem and they should solve it."

He continued: "Many of us support the peace initiative with Israel providing there is movement on the Palestinian state. We were willing to compromise and then these outrageous statements come. " What is particularly galling for Jordan is that last month, King Abdullah called for a Washington-backed proposed peace plan, a "57-state solution" which would draw in every Muslim-majority country to recognise Israel.

"That is a very strong statement when we are offering a third of the world to meet them with open arms," he said recently. In the Arab Public Opinion poll, 41 per cent said an Israeli-Palestinian agreement would improve their view of the US. However, half of the respondents thought the most important factor driving American policy in the region was protecting Israel. Next was oil. The Israelis may not agree.

They are worried about a rift with Mr Obama, who has called on Israel to halt all settlement construction in the West Bank. Israel has refused, and on Thursday an Israeli newspaper carried a caricature of Mr Obama wearing a keffiyah headscarf to illustrate a perceived Arab bias. That fear of attack is uppermost in the minds of many Israelis was apparent as the country launched its largest-ever nationwide emergency drill in case of invasion.

The wail of 2,000 air raid sirens began at 11am on Tuesday as citizens dashed to take cover in bomb shelters and schoolchildren dived under their desks. The screech of the sirens could be heard in the southern villages of Lebanon near the Israeli border and where a parliamentary election campaign is in the final stretch. Tomorrow the Lebanese go to the polls to vote for a 128-member parliament in which seats are divided equally among Christians and Muslims.

Appealing to the vanity of the Lebanese, the Free Patriotic Movement, a Christian party, put up billboards that read: "Be beautiful and vote". "All politics are local and it's about local issues, personalities, parties," said Abdallah Bouhabib, a former Lebanese ambassador to America, in an interview from Beirut. "A lot of Arabs are watching us through the papers, the media. People are interested because it is the only democracy around here."

There may be a lot of interest in the Lebanese election, yet according to the opinion poll only about two per cent cited democracy as central to their assessment of the Obama administration. "I'm not surprised by that. Why? A lot of Arabs talk about democracy and read about it, but they don't want it at the hands of foreigners. They don't want it at any cost or by the US," said Mr Bouhabib. Instead, the most important issue for many Arabs is Iraq and half of the respondents want US troops to leave quickly.

Early on Monday morning, a bomb exploded near the front gate of a vegetable market in southern Baghdad, killing four. Many believe the violence will end only when America leaves: 65 per cent were optimistic that if US forces were out by 2011, Iraqis would patch up their differences. On Iran, the picture was more complicated. "There is no Sunni and Shiite lovefest but there is a sense that Iran has stood up to the United States," said Mr Zogby.

Although 53 per cent said they believed Iran had the right to nuclear weapons, a small but growing number considered the Islamic republic a danger. The survey showed that 13 per cent felt Iran was a threat to them, compared with seven per cent in 2008. "It threatens our country," said Ayesha al Hammadi, 21, a student at Zayed University, in Abu Dhabi. "If there is a war between America and Iran our country would be affected. There will be foreign bases in our country and also Iran might want to have a war with us if we help another country."

But Ayesha al Qubaisi, 22, a librarian, disagreed. "Each country has its own decisions," she said. "If someone attacks my home, I have the right to defend myself." Significantly, 78 per cent of the respondents in the study said their negative perception of America was based on its foreign policy, not its values. In the UAE, where many young people have received an education in the US, that sentiment was not a contradiction at all.

"I studied English for two months in Houston, in Texas," said Miss al Hammadi. "People were very nice, there was no problem. They were not bad like some Arabs say. I learnt a lot in America. There is a difference between its people and the government." hghafour@thenational.ae