Obama's Remarks Win Few Mideast Fans

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By Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad 

If U.S. President Barack Obama expected his recent remarks on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process to at least please the Arab world, after they angered the Israelis, a number of commentaries in leading Arab media outlets have put those hopes to rest.

One reason for the overall negative reaction to Obama's Mideast address at the State Department last week is a lack of trust in the U.S. president, according to As-Sayyid an-Najar, the editor-in-chief of Egypt's state-owned Akhbar al-Yawm daily. This is rooted in the two unproductive years that have passed since Obama gave his last major Mideast speech, in Cairo, laying out his views on what was necessary to achieve an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, including a Palestinian state, an-Najar wrote.

"That day, he made very hopeful and emotional remarks that touched the feelings of Muslims and the Arabs," wrote an-Najar. "Two years passed during which we were embarrassed by the shameful condition of the U.S. administration in light of slaps in the face by the Israeli government, which worked the whole time to affirm that Obama is powerless and that his administration will not be able to impose peace, except according to Israel's conditions and whims."

Concluding, an-Najar asked if Obama is trying to "fool the world" or if "those who convinced him" that his speech would push forward the moribund peace process "are fooling him." 

Writing in the London-based Al-Hayat, a daily owned by a member of the Saudi royal family, columnist Abdullah Iskandar lamented that Obama's policies on the peace process are linked to his 2012 re-election campaign.

Iskandar wrote about the "weakness inherent" in Obama's vision, particularly his stance on the borders of an eventual Palestinian state. In his address last week, Obama said the basis for those borders should be, with adjustments, the lines that defined the West Bank and Gaza Strip before the 1967 Arab-Israeli War. Iskandar said Obama's weakness became clear after the president last week met with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the session at the White House rebuked Obama for citing the 1967 lines, which the Israelis consider indefensible.

"This is not just because Netanyahu absolutely rejects those borders," Iskandar wrote, but rather because of the start of Obama's electoral campaign. Obama "will not be able to promote such a vision in the United States and with those funding his campaign, especially within the Israeli lobby."

Iskandar said Obama raised the 1967 border issue not as a means of pressuring Israel, but rather because he wanted to reopen the prospects, however illusory, of serious peace negotiations. His aim was to thwart the Palestinian Authority's plan to gain statehood, without Israel's acquiescence, by asking the UN General Assembly to vote on the matter in September.

"In this sense, Obama's stances on the changes taking place in the Arab World represent a form of cover for maintaining political support for Israel and not a serious effort to find a sustainable permanent settlement in the Middle East," Iskandar wrote.

Abdul Rahman ar-Rashid, general manager of the Saudi-owned Al-Arabiya TV, came at the topic from a different angle. There was the possibility of a new outbreak of Palestinian resistance to Israeli occupation if statehood is further delayed, he wrote in the London-based Asharq al-Awsat, a daily owned by a different member of the Saudi royal family. In such an event, and in a U.S. election season, it "will not be easy for the U.S. president, who says he advocates the Arab people's right to self-determination, to "sit in the audience and simply watch what is happening in the West Bank and Gaza," he wrote.

"Without any doubt, the Palestinian cause will not die or fall into oblivion just because Netanyahu said no, or because Obama is preoccupied with mobilizing voter support for his presidential election," ar-Rashid wrote.

The status quo has changed inexorably for the U.S. and for Israel, he wrote. Although the quality of that change is "a work in progress," the Palestinian cause is gaining momentum and finally moving forward under its own indigenous power, ar-Rashid wrote.

Taking this line further, Mustafa al-Sawwaf, the former editor-in-chief of the Hamas-backed, Gaza-based newspaper Felesteen, wrote that since the Americans are offering nothing new, the Palestinians must take matters into their own hands. "The old-new U.S. position," al-Sawwaf wrote, is expected to "remove the blindfold from the eyes of the Palestinian Authority and the Palestinian negotiators, who no longer have any excuse to continue banking on the U.S. position or the possibility that justice will be done with the Palestinians."

"The ball is now in the Palestinian court," he wrote. "The reaction to Obama's speech must take a practical form." He argued that Palestinians must first form a national unity government and then hold elections.

"Turning to the UN must not be the Ramallah government's main priority," he added, referring to the Palestinian Authority. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas should instead tend to two main objectives: The first is to "come up with a new strategy for the confrontation" with Israel and the second is to cultivate "the Arab trend that is supportive of the Palestinians' rights."

After Obama delivered a second speech on the region to the annual policy conference of the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, the pro-Israel lobby, on May 22, reaction was even tougher among some Arab commentators. The day after the speech, Adli Sadiq, an official of Abbas's Fatah party, wrote in the mouthpiece of the Palestinian Authority, Al-Hayat al-Jadidah, "Each time President Obama discusses the Middle East peace process, he proves once again that he lacks the needed balance.

The London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi agreed, saying in an editorial the next day, "We did not expect American President Barack Obama's resistance to collapse that fast in the face of the Israeli campaign led against him by Benjamin Netanyahu due to his statements regarding the border of the independent Palestinian state. Indeed, this collapse was seen in record time, which did not exceed two days. It not only revealed the strength of the Jewish lobby, which supports Israel and its aggressions, but also the frailty of the American president and his weak immunity in the face of its pressures."

The U.S. president's remarks in his State Department speech regarding the Arab Spring also drew commentary in the region.

Obama's pledges of support for economic development to Arab countries undergoing political reform were the subject of a piece by columnist Mustapha Zayn of al-Hayat. The promises of aid are merely an effort to ensure that "these governments remain under the wing of Washington, as they owe their staying in power to this aid, and hence they would implement U.S. programs in economics, politics and democracy, and would bind their interests more and more to the interests of Washington, exactly the same as in the past," Zayn wrote.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, and after him President Hosni Mubarak, "made us imagine that U.S. aid would rescue Egypt, but what happened is that it sank Egypt into economic chaos unprecedented in its history," Zayn wrote.

Amid all the criticism of Obama's Mideast speech, one voice seemed to stand out, having struck a different chord. It was the voice of Tariq al-Homayed, the editor-in-chief of Asharq al-Awsat, the Saudi-owned daily that generally prohibits critical coverage of events in Saudi Arabia or of the Saudi royal family.

"If a major headline or summary could be taken from U.S. President Barack Obama, it would be the clear message he sent to the regional countries, namely that if your people do not stand with you, then we will not stand with you," he wrote.

Not surprisingly, al-Homayed's piece avoided any discussion of democracy and human rights in Saudi Arabia, where, he has asserted in the past, people overwhelmingly "stand with" the monarchical system. Instead, he singled out Syria, Libya and Yemen as the targets of Obama's new approach, thus omitting key Saudi allies Jordan and the other Persian Gulf states, monarchies all.

One was left wondering whether the protesters in neighboring Bahrain, who clearly had not "stood with" the ruling al-Khalifa family in recent months, and who watched as Saudi tanks rolled into the tiny kingdom, would agree with al-Homayed's formulation.

(Nicholas Noe and Walid Raad are Bloomberg View bloggers. The opinions expressed are their own.)

To contact the authors of this column:

Nicholas Noe at noe@mideastwire.com

To contact the editor responsible for this column:

Lisa Beyer at +1-212-205-0372 or lbeyer3@bloomberg.net

-0- May/24/2011 20:28 GMT