x Abu Dhabi, UAE Friday 21 July 2017

Great honour brings great responsibility

The Nobel Peace Prize can single out a leader advancing the committee's own foreign policy goals. For Barack Obama, it is a politically complicated recognition.

"We have now come, in the peace process, to a moment of truth which requires each one of us to take a new look at the situation - We will spare no effort, we will not tire or despair, we will not lose faith, and we are confident that, in the end, our aim will be achieved."

A leaked excerpt from Barack Obama's speech in Norway today, when he accepts the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize? No. They are passages from the speech by the former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat when he was handed the same honour 31 years ago today inside Oslo City Hall's same muralled walls. That Mr Obama, the US president, could conceivably repeat the same passages more than four decades later illustrates how depressingly little progress has been achieved in forging an Arab-Israeli peace. They also point out how politically precarious the award can be.

The reasoning of the committee of five Norwegian parliamentarians that chooses the winner of the peace prize is opaque. But in selecting Sadat and Mr Obama, the panel clearly meant the award as a prod for how they should run their foreign policy. In the case of Sadat, by praising him as the first Arab head of state to travel to Jerusalem in November 1977 and for signing the Camp David Accords 10 months later, the panel hoped the peace prize would spur a final peace deal between Israel and Egypt.

Golda Meir, a former Israeli prime minister, said Sadat and his co-winner, the Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, "deserved an Oscar more than a Nobel", but the committee succeeded. Four months after receiving the peace prize, Sadat and Begin signed the pact that ended the formal state of war that had existed between the two countries for 30 years and ushered in a chilly peace that has held for another 30.

But the honour - one of only nine Nobels of any sort to have been given to Muslims in the prize's 109-year history - exacted a high price. To protest against what he said was Israeli back-pedalling in negotiations, Sadat did not attend the ceremonies in 1978; instead, he sent an aide, Sayed Marel, who read his speech. To protest against the peace deal, the Arab League suspended Egypt and moved its headquarters from Cairo to Tunis.

Finally, Sadat's peace moves spelt his death warrant at home. In his Nobel address, Sadat insisted that it was the people of Egypt, not he, who had embarked "upon a major effort to achieve peace in the Middle East". It was wishful thinking. Opposition to his moves had swelled at home, not least among Islamist extremists, one of whom - Khalid Islambouli, an Egyptian army lieutenant as well as a member of Islamic Jihad - led a team that assassinated the Egyptian president three years later.

Three decades on, the Nobel committee has again chosen a laureate it hopes will advance a foreign policy it deems desirable. And again, the expectations of the committee and many others in the global audience are at odds with the political mood in the recipient's own backyard. In announcing the award in October, the committee's citation described Mr Obama's work for nuclear disarmament and his creation of a new climate in international politics in which "multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position".

Yet the results of a public-opinion poll last week by the Pew Research Center in the United States show a sharp rise in isolationist sentiment in the US public and among members of the highly respected Council on Foreign Relations. For Mr Obama, the political problems posed by the peace prize do not end here. In keeping with the occasion, his speech today will be lofty, yet because of that, it is likely to be cited as further proof of his failure during 11 months in office to live up to his initial promise.

The irony of receiving a peace prize also is likely to be thick in the air today as he takes the podium only weeks after caving in to Israel on the issue of West Bank settlements and just days after announcing a major escalation in the Afghanistan war. How does he now wage war in defence of what he considers a righteous cause without being castigated as a hypocrite? The 48-year-old Mr Obama, perhaps more than anyone else, knows that the Nobel Committee rewarded him for good intentions more than good deeds. He must surmise, too, that he is being honoured, in part, for not being George W Bush. None of that makes his task easier, especially in the Middle East.

In its October award announcement, the Nobel committee did not specifically mention the region. Yet the place where the promise conferred by the peace prize is most likely to be tested - and betrayed - is here, where four decades earlier his fellow Nobel laureate declared a "moment of truth". cnelson@thenational.ae