Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

The Difficult Questions Concerning Obama’s Middle East Visit | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
Select Page

The Palestinian catastrophe [Al-Nakbah] anniversary month, May, has come to an end with American President Barack Obama receiving Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas, and by the end of this month – which has been a month of meetings and discussions – the American president immediately starts his practical moves to concretize the results of his meetings and consultations. This will be done with two visits: A first visit to Saudi Arabia, on Wednesday 3 June 2009, and a second visit to Egypt, on Thursday 4 June 2009.

In Saudi Arabia, Obama will be discussing with King Abdullah issues concerning Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan; and, in Egypt he will deliver a speech to the Islamic world, in which he will announce a commitment to bringing about reconciliation and dialogue. Between the Riyadh discussions and the Cairo speech the Palestinian issue will be on the table as a main demand by the Arabs, and as a back-up operation meant to please, on the part of the American President.

The Arabs want an acceptable solution to the Palestinian situation, a solution that has been impeded by America for a long time, and the American President wants a plan to deal with the Islamic world. He is putting forward a new American move concerning Palestine as an enticing price for an acceptance of his “Islamic” plan, and for an Arab participation in it. So, we are now in the presence of a new type of quest initiated by the Americans toward the Arabs; we are in the presence of an American regional plan including a clause on the Palestinian issue, and not an American endeavor to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict.

The Arabs are welcoming the American move, and are impatiently waiting to see its clauses, while the Israelis are worried about it and resisting it even though they know that they cannot do so.

Commenting on this political map, an Israeli writer says: President Obama has explained to Prime Minister Netanyahu the scale of priorities, in this way: First Iran and then the Palestinians, but with a clear link between the two, and this is why America does not agree to an Israeli-Iranian war, and calls for a political track that would lead to a regional coalition led by America.

In practice, this American talk means pressure on Netanyahu over two issues: First, he should openly accept that the aim is establishing a Palestinian state, side by side with Israel, and second, he should ensure a complete end to settlement-building, without any interpretations. Given that Netanyahu’s positions are at variance with these two [American] requests, there seem to be big American-Israeli differences. In fact, there are big differences between them, but Israel cannot resist them, and it is obliged to speedily retreat from its position so as to remain under American protection, otherwise the Netanyahu government is in danger of falling.

Yet, there is a contradiction in these public differences between Obama and Netanyahu. The previous Israeli governments used to declare their acceptance of a two-state solution, but the way they negotiated made such a solution impossible. Likewise, concerning settlement-building, previous Israeli governments used to declare that they were prepared to remove randomly-built settlements (or isolated settlements) while daily and intensively expanding the largest and most important ones. America, meanwhile, was quite happy with that, and remained silent. But Netanyahu came to make public this secret tactic, and turned it into an official policy. For his part, Obama could not put up with this, and engaged in an open political fight against Netanyahu. Now, with Netanyahu surrendering to the American demand, Israel returns to the previous situation which was accepted in silence by America.

The new aspect of the American tactic will emerge when it becomes obvious that it is impossible to reconcile the Palestinian demands with the Israeli ones, and to agree on fundamental issues such as a withdrawal from the territories occupied since 1967, the status of Jerusalem, the right of return for the Palestinian refugees, and the fate of the settlements and the settlers. Differences over these issues have impeded a political solution during the last thirty years, and the question now is: Will Obama accept that the differences over these issues are insoluble? Or rather, will he resort to the theory of imposing solutions on anyone whose positions do not comply with international legality?

Obama is obliged to closely analyze this question, and the analysis must take place in Saudi Arabia, in the first place, for two reasons: First, Saudi Arabia is concerned more than anyone else with the Arab peace initiative; and second, Obama needs Saudi Arabia to play the role of the first mediator in the attempt to find a political way out of the crisis of war in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and, as a result, to help America get rid of its military deadlock there. Obviously, Saudi Arabia will be asking for something to be done about the Palestinian issue in return for the role that is required from it. Will Obama understand this? Or will America’s relations with Israel remain stronger than any Arab-American understanding?

This is the question, and this is the problem, and an answer is what everybody in the Arab world and in the Islamic world is waiting to hear when Obama delivers his speech in Cairo, addressing the Islamic world. If Obama can reach an understanding with Saudi Arabia, then the speech would include details about a new American vision to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict, and this will lead to the setting up of a large regional coalition that Israel wants against Iran, and that America and Saudi Arabia want to tackle a more serious situation extending from Iran and Afghanistan, on the basis of a removal of its explosive elements, not on the basis of threats of explosions, and on the basis of dialogue, not on that of confrontation.

The other question here is: Can Israel understand the nature of this question posed to all in the region? It is clear, up to now, that Israel is feigning not to understand, and this is why it continues to publicly spell out what it wants, and to ignore answers to any question asked by others.

The other aspect of this question is: Can Israel understand America’s current need for understanding with the Islamic world, through Saudi Arabia? Or will it prefer not to understand, in line with an Israeli policy that considers that everything going on in the White House concerns Israel, and no one else?

Another question emanates from this one concerning Barack Obama himself. Is the American President prepared to bring about a qualitative change in American-Arab relations, even if such a change encroaches on Israel’s prestige, albeit slightly? Many doubt that he is, and they could not help noticing that the day after a sulking Netanyahu left the White House, Obama received former US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. Such a meeting would have been quite ordinary, had Kissinger not been the author of a theory on how to deal with the Arab-Israeli conflict. He believes that this conflict is insoluble because the demands of the two sides are not convergent, and he publicly adopts positions opposed to all the Arab demands. For example, in May 2004, Kissinger wrote an article, published by Asharq Al-Awsat, in which he spoke about the Arab demands. He said that the Arabs want America to oblige Israel to return to the 1967 borders, to annul its decision to unify Jerusalem, to accept a vague formula about the return of the refugees (the Arab initiative formula), and to eliminate the settlements. At this point Kissinger adds that this program has contributed to the impeding of the peace process for two decades.

Clearly, Kissinger has given Obama the same point of view. He is not the sort of person to change his political opinions about any issue after studying it, not because he is an obdurate, intransigent person but because he always backs up any position of his with a theoretical view. For example, in his response to the Arab position that an Israeli concession will be met with an Arab recognition of Israel (and currently an Islamic recognition), Kissinger says that such a concession is worthless, because “in ordinary relations between states, mutual recognition is not considered as a reward but as a foreign policy starting point, not an end in itself.” Surely Kissinger will be stressing this view when he speaks with Obama about the Arab peace initiative.

Despite this, we are looking forward to Obama’s final answer which he is going to put forward either before the Saudi officials or in his (Islamic speech) [in Cairo]. Obama has retreated from the neo-conservatives’ policy, so, will he renege on Kissinger’s policy too, or will he have his own policy? Important remark: So far Obama has not committed himself to adopting any position, which may indicate that he would go either way.