x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Obama wields more options in the Middle East

The received wisdom in the US capital is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be way down the agenda of Barack Obama.

Nabil Abuznaid is optimistic that Barack Obama will be a friend to Paestinian causes.
Nabil Abuznaid is optimistic that Barack Obama will be a friend to Paestinian causes.

WASHINGTON // The received wisdom in the US capital is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will be way down the agenda of Barack Obama, the president-elect who was voted in on the back of American concerns about the domestic economic crisis. Once upon a time foreign affairs and the unresolved crisis in the Middle East might have been a factor in US elections. This year, economic turmoil trumped all. Nabil Abuznaid, the Palestine Liberation Organisation's chargé d'affaires in Washington, is undeterred. He shares the international optimism that Mr Obama's victory offers a new dawn to those who find themselves dependent on the success of US policy around the world. He believes Mr Obama will prove to be not only a friend to the Palestinians but also an inspiration to the peace camp in Israel, which faces its own elections on Feb 10. "What happened was a good message to Israelis because Americans voted to forget the past, to the put the history of slavery behind them," Mr Abuznaid said. "When the Israelis vote, they should look to the Palestinians as equal neighbours. We all need to put the suffering of the past behind us." "Yes we can," he said, echoing Mr Obama's campaign rallying call for change. American Jews overwhelmingly supported Mr Obama, in contrast to polls that showed Israelis favoured John McCain, the Republican candidate, and 78 per cent voted for him on Tuesday, according to exit polls. These American Jews rejected "fear and smear" campaigns, said a full-page advertisement in yesterday's New York Times paid for by J Street, a liberal, pro-Israel lobbying group. It congratulated Mr Obama and urged him to bring about a comprehensive peace, end the war in Iraq and engage with Iran. Israelis are more fearful about Iran than about the Palestinians and worry that Mr Obama's openness to talks would embolden Tehran. Israeli policymakers have made intensive efforts to mobilise American Jewish opinion behind their campaign for either unilateral or joint US-Israeli military action against Iran. But they failed to gain much traction within a community that already resented being lumped in with supporters of a highly unpopular war in Iraq. An official with a pro-Israel organisation in Washington, who requested anonymity, said Israel's political and military establishment and their friends in the United States had overreached with their dire warnings of Iran preparing for a "second Holocaust". The response to Iran was cast in simple terms of attack or retreat. "The Bush administration, which is a disciple of the sticks-only school, did not offer Israel any alternative route," the official said. "What you now hear from many in the Israeli establishment and from American friends of Israel is that facing an all but hopeless situation, a new US administration may provide a fresh approach. Engagement with Iran, they said, may produce progress towards stopping Iran's nuclear quest," he said. "If it fails it would enhance the case for war and they could say: 'We tried everything short of power. Nothing helped. We have no other choice'." Mr Abuznaid and many other analysts said progress on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict could help restore an improved US reputation as well as boost its regional aims more generally, particularly in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. The PLO representative said several meetings with Mr Obama's advisers in recent months, held without media fanfare, gave him hope the new administration would address the conflict sooner rather than later. He also believed Mr Obama would appoint a Middle East envoy to spur progress towards peace. Names tipped for an influential role in Middle Eastern policy-making under Mr Obama include Daniel Kurtzer, a liberal Orthodox Jew and former US ambassador to Israel, and Dennis Ross, the former US envoy who led the Camp David talks and placed much of the blame for their failure on the Palestinians. Ori Nir, the spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, a dovish group that many say speaks for a silent majority of moderate American Jews, said "high-profile professionals" could manage US policy. "The incoming president will have to be personally involved in Arab-Israeli peacemaking but he will not have to be totally consumed by Mideast conflict resolution in order to achieve progress toward regional peace," Mr Nir said. In a plea similar to Mr Abuznaid's, he urged US engagement to reverse West Bank settlements and to push the Arab League's peace initiative, which offers full ties with Israel in return for an end to the occupation and the creation of a Palestinian state. However, many Israelis and Arabs believe Mr Obama will do little that is concrete to improve the region, although their reasoning differs. Israelis worry that pressure to make peace would reduce their security. Arabs wonder if their voice will be listened to, given that Mr Obama's policies on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict follow those of the Bush administration. Mr Obama said this year that Jerusalem would remain the undivided capital of Israel. But Mr Abuznaid said he took heart from the Democrat's later clarification that it would be up to the two parties to decide Jerusalem's future. Mr Abuznaid said he believed Mr Bush had genuinely come to the realisation, albeit too late, that a Palestinian state was vital as a goal on its own and to US interests. "I saw him twice in the last month and as he shook his fist he said to me: 'We've got to have a Palestinian state. Keep on trying, don't give up'," Mr Abuznaid said. "But they wasted seven years and you cannot do it in a minute." sdevi@thenational.ae