Obama’s Palestine choices

Obama’s Palestine choices

“To those who seek peace and security — we support you…While we breathe, we hope, and where we are met with cynicism, and doubt, and those who tell us that we can”t, we will respond with that timeless creed that sums up the spirit of a people: Yes We Can.”

–President-Elect Barack Obama, speaking at his victory party
in Grant Park (Chicago) on November 4, 2008

The fact that most Arabs in the Middle East also voted for change in the direction of US foregin policy may soon face the reality of Obama not as the fiery candidate but the realist president of the United States.
Doubtless, under President George W. Bush, US foreign policy debacles in the Middle East have deepened, and America’s goodwill in the region all but vanished. Not surprisingly, then, that Barack Obama”s election as the 44th president has raised expectations in a volatile region that continues to look to us for a more prominent role to solve its problems.

 This reflects expectations in that President Obama will make fundamental changes after taking office on January 20, 2009, particularly to Middle Eastern policy. There is a lot of hope but little evidence to suggest he will do so–yet admittedly, basic decisions on the new administration have not yet been taken, so that all considerations are subject to one caveat. That caveat is that it is not clear what guiding idea the Obama administration”s foreign policy will adopt. True, Obama promised change but thus far only recycled diplomats have been proposed.

Yet there are two reasons to expect Obama to find his own blueprint for America”s foreign policy. Firstly, the American president has a weak constitutional role when it comes to domestic policy. Although fixing the economy will be  his foremost task,  most likely, Obama will seek to gain political stature by engaging adversaries and friends overseas. Secondly, Obama”s campaigning style showed he was determined to offer voters a lasting legacy. With the importance of public perception the Obama administration, this key idea on foreign policy will define the presidency.

 As for the Israel-Palestine conflict, notwithstanding Obama’s commitment to a more direct engagement to bring the Palestinian and Israelis to conclude an agreement based on the two-state solution, few
pundits expect any dramatic American overtures that would not meet Israel approval. Israel’s upcoming elections, coupled with a weakened Palestinian authority, propel little hope of a real incentive for Obama to entangle his administration in such a quagmire.

Obama may disappoint millions of Arabs and Arab and Muslim-Americans who saw in his victory a beacon for change in America’s turbulent affair with the Middle East, in particular the Arab world. It is still early to make final judgments but the chances that he will implement a new approach in dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other complicated issues in the region are not great. His choice of Congressman Rahm Emanuel as Chief-of Staff  and the prospects of Hillary Clinton a Secretary of State are two example of a bad start as seen by many Arab political pundits. Emanuel is known for  his support of right wing Israeli policies. Senator Clinton has shown disgust for Arab and Muslim Americans when she returned campaign contributions to a Muslim group while running for Senator from New York. Her disavowal o f the late Yasser Arafat and his wife still resonates with many Palestinians and their supporters.

Obama may well symbolically appoint a special ambassador to deal with the Middle East conflict and take the pressure off his Secretary of State. The key question, however, is whether Barack Obama will continue to justify America’s policies and actions in the Middle East through Bush’s “war on terrorism”, or US foreign policy will be given a new paradigm. The general consensus has been that Bush’s foregin policy was the product of ideological imperatives not the advancement of the core national interests of the United States. It remains a truism that Israel’s security, Palestinian national aspirations, and America’s interests are inexorably connected.

For President Obama to commit to real progress in solving the Palestine-Israel conflict, a paradigm shift has to occur in the political climate that shapes the  seemingly irreconcilable relations between Arab and Jewish Americans. I would argue that for there to be an effective US policy pressing for a just Middle East peace, there had to be a US constituency that demanded such a policy. An important 2007 poll establishes that such a constituency exists among strong majorities of Arab-Americans and American Jews both of whom agree on the general outlines of a just peace plan.

Thus far, the two sides have been eternally at odds engulfed in a deep divide over how to solve the conflict, raising funds and seeking political clout to undermine the other. Several polls have shown that majority of Arab and Jewish Americans support a peaceful resolution based on the two-state option. Just imagine if ,what I would term, the “peace constituency” is founded encompassing all the Arab and Jewish organizations that support such a solution. President Obama” would not find it difficult to seek our help and support and thus by undermine the all powerful prowess of AIPAC.

For the last sixty years, the US has sided with Israel. Israel today is neither at peace with itself or with its neighbors. Change, real change, is needed. Seeing the Middle East through the prism of Israel has outlived its pertinence, moral compass and intended consequences. We hope President-elect Obama will not be  another friend of Israel but a vigilant advocate for peace and justice.

Dr. Aref Assaf has a doctorate in Political Science and International Law. He is president and founder of American Arab Forum, AAF, a non partisan think-tank specializing in advocating positive image of the American Arab community.