In the run-up to the US presidential elections, the Democratic candidate Barack Obama paid a visit to Germany. In scenes that have not been seen in Berlin since President John F. Kennedy visited the city [in 1963] and called for the Berlin Wall to be demolished, 100,000 Germans came out to greet Obama. President Kennedy’s visit to Berlin came at the height of the Cold War, and the people of Berlin came out in huge numbers to witness this historic event, demonstrating the respect and love that Kennedy could command for reasons that we cannot go into at this juncture.
However when Obama visited Berlin, he was not the President of America, but a mere [presidential] candidate visiting the German capital as part of his election campaign after he had been accused by his opponents of lacking experience in foreign affairs. There was no great Wall that Obama could demand be demolished, as the Berlin Wall already came down in 1989; therefore what was the secret behind the 100,000 strong crowd that gathered from all directions to welcome the African-American candidate with the “strange” name
Historians will interpret this phenomenon for years to come, but what is certain is that the Republican candidate, John McCain, would not have been able to raise such crowds had he visited Berlin regardless of effort and expenditure. Therefore despite McCain’s personal history and his long experience in international relations, his lack of global popularity when compared to that of his inexperienced opponent is difficult to understand. Attempting to find a solution to this problem, the Republican Party [political] experts released an advert that showed an image of Barack Obama addressing a large crowd of supporters alongside an image of the pop star Britney Spears performing in front of an audience of the same size; above both pictures is the caption “the Politics of Celebrities.” The meaning behind this campaign ad was the Republican Party alleging that Obama did not have the requisite political ability [to be President], but that rather Obama possessed the ability to cater to the crowd, playing off the public’s hopes and dreams, but that ultimately there is nothing behind his rhetoric.
Of course, we now know that this strategy did not succeed, however this same belief was held by a number of Arab intellectuals who were unable to understand the Obama phenomenon in Berlin, and were similarly unable to understand it when he gave his recent speech at the Cairo University. A number of Egyptian intellectuals including; Mohamed Hassanein Heikal [the Nasserite, or Nationalist if you prefer], Fahmi Huwaidi [Islamist], Ibrahim Issa [Liberal], Dr. Azmi Bishara [Arab Nationalist], and even Mahdi Akef [General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood] all agreed that Obama’s speech was nothing more than a lesson in “public relations.” Perhaps this is the middle path that our institutes and organizations are taking in response to the historic reception Obama received at the Cairo University where the majority of students called out to him “Obama, we love you.”
These intellectuals were unable to make the same comparison with Britney Spears [that McCain did], and perhaps the General Guide of the Muslim Brotherhood has never even heard of the American pop star, but the results were the same, and these Arab intellectuals believe that the President traveled all the way from America merely to talk, and not take action. They argued that the purpose of the speech was to support moderate Arab countries such as Egypt, Saudi Arabia, and Jordan, but since these countries are not on the verge of collapse they do not require a speech by the US President to strengthen their position. They argued that an individual and intelligent American [President] had found an opportunity to manipulate the feelings of the elite classes, weakening their hearts and minds until they were ready to accept whatever they were told, despite the fact that all they were given was words, and not action. As if it was not acceptable for the visiting US President to do any less when visiting the Arabs and Muslims than remove all the Israeli settlements [in the occupied territories] and expel the Jews from the Holy Land!
Of course, such talk does not exist in international politics, and in reality Obama did not come with words alone, rather he arrived in Egypt after genuinely beginning the process of preparing a Middle East [peace] settlement. His speech came after a series of [positive] actions, such as the appointment of George Mitchell as Special Envoy to the Middle East, as well as holding meetings with regional leaders and their representatives. In fact the speech itself was an action, as the words of a President are always more than mere words. The uproar surrounding the speech did not end until George Mitchell arrived in the region, negotiating and talking with the concerned parties, and he even visited Damascus. Mitchell visited Damascus at a time when Khalid Mishal [leader of Hamas] was in Cairo [as a part of inter-Palestinian dialogue], the Lebanese elections were taking place peacefully and Hezbollah did not occupy Beirut upon being defeated as they have done in the past, while the Iranian election was swinging between the hardliners – who had monopolized the political field for years – and the moderates for the first time in many years. In short, the politics of change was in full swing.
When Obama visited Berlin, he was sending the message to America’s European allies that a new world was waiting for closer cooperation between the partners for democracy in order to introduce this around the world, while his speech in Cairo dealt with the issue of how to change the relationship between the Islamic world and the West, changing this relationship from differences of opinion, to one built upon mutual interests. From here, settling the Arab – Israeli conflict and solving the Palestinian issue are merely one part of the whole [issue], and this must be built upon mutual interest in the same manner that Jerusalem [historically] was a place where the three monotheistic religions lived [peacefully] side by side.
Obama’s speech in Cairo was not a public relations exercise, but rather was an exercise in political action in order to change an unacceptable reality. The problem is that policies such as these are only coming from the American and Israeli side, for the Arab side that is participating in this either prefers to remain silent, or to simply repeat what has been said before with regards to unacceptable conditions. The truth is that there is no problem in principle to this approach, for in the end Israel is the country that is occupying Arab land, Israel is the country that is causing Palestinian suffering, Israel is the country that is committing crimes to ensure that this conflict remains ongoing. However politics, if its aim and objective is to bring about a change to an unacceptable status quo, then it is not enough to repeat the same details of the Arab Initiative, rather new questions must be answered. For example, what will the situation in Israel be like following the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in Eastern Jerusalem? What about a withdrawal to the pre-1967 borders? What about the Palestinian refugee’s right of return?
The essence of politics and negotiation is to find a solution that no party finds objectionable, otherwise the issue moves from the realm of politics into that of conflict, whereby the situation can only be resolved through force of arms.
To put it simply, Obama did not visit Saudi Arabia and Egypt as an exercise in public relations, but in order to work towards solving the Palestinian issue. It is time for the Arab and Israeli response. With the ball in the Israeli court, the issue will be disputed between those who are prepared to work towards reaching a historic reconciliation with the Arabs, and those who are prepared for the historic hostility to continue. With regards to the Arabs, this issue will be disputed between those who would like to adopt a wait-and-see approach and hope that the conflict will resolve itself, and those that want to put the responsibility on the shoulders of Obama, who may find a solution to this problem.