- January 29, 2009
Obama moves swiftly on Middle East
No American president has moved so swiftly as Barack Obama to signal that the Middle East conflict is of prime importance to his White House agenda.
Lets be clear: right now, the vast majority of ordinary American people care about one thing and one thing only: the collapsing US economy. That”s it. They want Obama to create jobs and get things moving. Foreign policy is not on their list.
Despite the recent war in Gaza, people in this country by and large perceive the Middle East conflict dimly, as a kind of incessant background noise, far away and of little concern to people”s everyday lives.
Once you understand that, you can understand how significant Obama”s gestures and actions regarding the Middle East in his first few days in office are.
Politically, it would have been smarter to skip the Middle East altogether and focus completely on the economy. Instead, he put the Middle East front and centre.
In his inaugural address, Obama reached out to the Muslim world calling for a relationship based on mutual respect. It was the first time any inaugural speech has included the word “Muslim”. That is symbolic.
Obama”s first telephone call to a foreign leader was not to Gordon Brown or Nicholas Sarkozy or Hu Jintao. It was to Mahmoud Abbas. That is symbolic.
Obama has, for the first time, spoken of the civilian deaths and suffering in Gaza as a concern in and of itself, rather than a product of Hamas provocation.
George Bush, the US president, and Condoleezza Rice, his secretary of state, never mentioned the deadly toll in Gaza without footnoting blame for it onto Hamas. In a conflict in which words are wielded like weapons, that is important.
Obama has stated he believes it is “time to return to the negotiating table,” and that both Israel and the Palestinians will have to make “hard choices” in order to achieve a political settlement.
That is a signal that there will no longer be the Bush-style lapdog attitude toward Israel in the Obama Administration.
Almost immediately after moving into the White House, Obama appointed George Mitchell to be his special Middle East envoy. Mitchell is by far the most high-profile, skilled negotiator to tackle the US role in the Middle East since Henry Kissinger.
He is a distinguished former Democratic senator of Lebanese heritage — a background which will give him a unique perspective on the conflict.
Mitchell played a pivotal role in brokering a political process between Northern Ireland”s Nationalist and Loyalist factions.
That is a conflict long seen as utterly intractable: a violent, religiously-based war with roots stretching back 800 years.
Mitchell also took part in a commission that looked into the roots of violence that erupted in 2000, during what has become known as the Second Intifada.
The group”s recommendations included calling upon Israel to halt settlement building in the West Bank. Many Palestinians generally believe that commissions findings were the most fair in the long history of Middle east blue ribbon commissions.
Some in the media and intelligentsia now will scoff and say that the Mitchell mission is nothing but a public relations ploy. Public relations intended to impress who? Remember, Obama is not winning any points with the American electorate by devoting his time and energy to the Middle East. And Palestinians and Israelis don”t vote in US elections.
Many will also insist that now, Obama”s only course must be to recognise and enter into negotiations with Hamas. That”s not going to happen. Trust me. No president is going to make an overture to an organisation that contends Israel has not right to exists. Like it or not, it is a reality of US politics.
If the Palestinians, helped by the Egyptians and other Arab governments, ever manage to present some semblance of political unity and resist the impulse to immediately resort to violence to settle their internal political disputes, Hamas will one day form a part of a unified Palestinian government.
I expect the US will then be able to deal with that government, just as it deals with the Lebanese government that includes Hezbollah. In the meantime, the Obama administration will have a dialogue with Iran, Hamas” patron.
Mitchell is now touring Middle Eastern and European capitals on what amounts to a “listening tour”. Expectations are high – perhaps too high – as is usual when it comes to hopes for Obama.
There is, of course, a distinct possibility that the Gaza ceasefires announced separately by Israel and Hamas will break down, and fighting will resume even as Mitchell makes his way around the region. That would be a black mark for Obama and a setback in the early days of his presidency.
But that is a political risk Obama appears willing to take – putting his administration”s prestige on the line by stepping without hesitation into the minefield of the Middle East.
* senior Washington correspondent