x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 25 July 2017

Few in Middle East expect real change

Barack Obama's choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state gladdens Israel, but does not overjoy Arabs and Iranians keen for a new start.

President-elect Barack Obama, second from the left, stands with, from left to right, Vice President-elect Joe Biden, Secretary of State-designate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and National Security Advisor-designate Ret Marine Gen. James Jones, at a news conference to announce his national security team, in Chicago.
President-elect Barack Obama, second from the left, stands with, from left to right, Vice President-elect Joe Biden, Secretary of State-designate Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, and National Security Advisor-designate Ret Marine Gen. James Jones, at a news conference to announce his national security team, in Chicago.

BEIRUT // Barack Obama's choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state gladdens Israel, but does not overjoy Arabs and Iranians keen for a new start after eight years of perceived US policy calamities. The US president-elect named Mrs Clinton for the post when he announced his national security team in Chicago yesterday. Mrs Clinton had talked tougher than Mr Obama when they were vying to be Democratic presidential candidate, decrying her rival's "naive" call for direct talks with foes such as Iran, Syria and North Korea and vowing to "obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel.

Yesterday, Mrs Clinton vowed to "reach out to the world again" after eight years of the Bush administration and promised to give "this assignment, your administration and my country my all". "America is a place founded on the idea that everyone should have the right to live up to his or her God-given potential. It is the same ideal that must guide America's purpose in the world today," she said in Chicago.

After several sharp policy disagreements with her former rival during the bitter Democratic party primaries, all eyes will be watching how the two manage to work as a team. Mr Obama acknowledged: "There's much to do from preventing the spread of nuclear weapons to Iran and North Korea, to seeking a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians, to strengthening international institutions." And he heaped praise on his former rival saying her nomination as top diplomat was a "sign to friend and foe of the seriousness of my commitment to renew American diplomacy and restore our alliances".

Palestinians, who saw US policy tilt even further towards Israel under George W Bush, the outgoing president, acknowledged the future secretary of state's grasp of the issues that her husband, Bill Clinton, grappled with during two terms in the White House. "We should not be starting from scratch with her," said Nimer Hammad, an aide to Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president. "We can only judge her after she is in the job."

Mr Obama and Mrs Clinton are inheriting a distinctly gloomy outlook for progress towards settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Washington's Arab allies are not expecting a new dawn. (In his election night speech and again yesterday, Mr Obama invoked a "new dawn of leadership" in the United States.) "Anyone would be better than the last administration," said Diaa Rashwan, an Egyptian political analyst. "But I don't think there will be real change in the Middle East."

He said Mr Obama's entourage contained many pro-Israeli politicians and analysts. Any major policy shift would focus on Iraq and perhaps Iran, not the Israeli-Palestinian dispute. "Obama will try to make a big change in Iraq," Mr Rashwan said, alluding to the next president's promise to withdraw troops within 16 months of taking office on Jan 20. "He can't make two big changes in the same area... It would be suicide."

In Saudi Arabia, pessimism about Mrs Clinton's pro-Israeli fervour is tempered by her hard line on Iran, whose rise as a regional Shiite power, unwittingly assisted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has alarmed the Sunni-ruled kingdom. "Her hawkishness on Iran would be welcome and a break from Obama's dovish instincts," said Khaled al Dakhil, a Saudi political analyst. "It seems she'll be a powerful secretary of state. I don't think the Syrians and Iranians will like it."

Syria is eager for the United States to kick-start stalled peace talks with Israel, but a diplomat in contact with Syrian officials said they were cautious about prospects for detente. "They recognise that she was much tougher on Syria than Obama during the campaign, and that Obama himself may maintain a tough line with Syria," the diplomat said. Farouq al Shara, the Syrian deputy president, said last week that Damascus felt "limited optimism" towards the new administration. "Those close to Obama say he wants a dialogue with Syria, which is important," he told Baath Party officials.

Some in Syria anticipate that Mrs Clinton will at least outperform her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice. "The legacy of her husband in the region is relatively good and she knows the conflicts better than Rice," said Thabet Salem, a political commentator. "The key word here is relatively." Iran, which has defied world efforts to curb its nuclear goals, poses a huge diplomatic challenge and, some analysts argue, as big an opportunity to the Obama-Clinton team. Yet after nearly 30 years of undiluted hostility between the two countries, reaching a new accommodation will be hard.

But Mr Obama's nominations, including Mrs Clinton and an equally pro-Israeli Rahm Emanuel as White House chief of staff, were hardly encouraging for Tehran, said Mohammad Marandi, the head of North American Studies at Tehran University. Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, congratulated Mrs Clinton on her appointment. "Senator Clinton is a friend of Israel and the Jewish people and I am sure that in her new role she will continue to further the special relations between our two countries," he said.

* Reuters