For Obama, Support And Skepticism In Middle East

Benjamin Netanyahu i i

hide captionThe Likud opposition party, led by Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, does not see negotiations with Palestinians as a priority.

Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Benjamin Netanyahu

The Likud opposition party, led by Former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, does not see negotiations with Palestinians as a priority.

Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
Mahmoud Abbas i i

hide captionPalestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his inauguration as Palestinian state president on Nov. 24. Some Palestinians believe peace talks have reached an impasse.

Palestinian Press Office via Getty Images
Mahmoud Abbas

Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas during his inauguration as Palestinian state president on Nov. 24. Some Palestinians believe peace talks have reached an impasse.

Palestinian Press Office via Getty Images

There is cautious hope in the Middle East that the incoming Obama administration will rejuvenate efforts toward a long-elusive peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians.

For the past year, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been the special envoy for the quartet of Middle East peacemakers. On a recent morning in East Jerusalem, he is in an oddly upbeat mood, given the lack of tangible progress toward an Israeli-Palestinian peace deal.

In a not-so-subtle jab at his friend President Bush, Blair says he believes the new U.S. president will breathe fresh vitality into the peace process from Day One.

"From the very first day, it needs to be dealt with — with the priority which it deserves," Blair says. "It needs to be focused on with commitment, energy and determination, and I have no doubt at all — certainly given my conversations I've had with President-elect [Obama] in the past — that he intends to do that. And that of itself will be an important signal across the region."

But some signals already sent by the president-elect have prompted vastly different reactions in Israel.

Take the unveiling Monday of the new national security and foreign policy team: Israeli leaders and media warmly embraced Obama's choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state. Commentators in Israel called the pick good for Israel, noting Clinton's staunch support in the Senate for the Jewish state. In the Palestinian media, however, Obama's cabinet picks were met with a mix of cynicism and indifference.

Commentator Omar Barghouti echoes the sentiment of many Palestinians who say Clinton is hardly the best choice to help restore America's image as an even-handed peace broker. But he says Obama and his team have to try.

"No U.S. president can afford to maintain the status quo," Barghouti says. "The entire Arab region is boiling. There is so much anger, so much frustration among Arabs — not just against Israel, but against Israel's patron, the United States. So I think they will have to engage in this process to really start a process toward ending the occupation."

But the dynamics of the already troubled peace talks could change again if the right-wing Likud party returns to power in Israeli elections set for February. The hawkish party, led by Benjamin Netanyahu, does not see negotiations with the Palestinians as a priority. Likud candidates want to bend the incoming U.S. president's ear on an entirely different concern.

"I would advise President Obama very warmly not to be engaged with Iran," says Uzi Dayan, a former national security adviser who is running for parliament on the Likud slate, which is slightly ahead in recent opinion polls. Dayan views with alarm Obama's campaign talk of engaging in direct diplomacy with Iran to curtail Tehran's nuclear ambitions.

"Don't fall for this old Iranian tactic of 'let's talk about it,' " Dayan says. "I'm very much afraid that Iran will continue its race toward nuclear capability, and they will use engagement just to buy more time."

On the prospects for Middle East peace, Dayan says there are no Palestinian moderates who can deliver at this time. He says the Annapolis peace talks, launched by the Bush administration a year ago, have hit a brick wall. Ironically, many Palestinians would agree with Dayan about the brick wall — ever expanding Jewish settlements and stalled talks have prompted many to say the idea of a two-state solution is all but dead.

The prospect of a new conservative-led coalition in Israel has sparked concern among members of Israel's peace camp and has led some, perhaps incongruously, to downplay the need for a strong American role in any peace talks.

"If you ask me whether my dream of peace in the Middle East depends on an American president, my answer is no, no, no," says Yossi Beilin, a leading voice in Israel's peace movement.

He calls Vice President-elect Joe Biden "a good old friend," and says he'll meet with members of Obama's transition team next week. The Bush administration, Beilin says, exerted both subtle and overt pressure on Israel not to talk with its enemies. He hopes that changes under an Obama administration.

"The most modest demand that I'm having is 'erase, please, all the restrictions,' " Beilin says. "Don't tell us 'don't talk to Hamas.' Don't tell us 'don't talk to the Syrians.' Just let the Israeli new leader negotiate. If you are busy and cannot invest anything in the Middle East, please do not prevent us from doing things."

Asked whether his demands will change if the right-wing Likud wins in upcoming elections, Beilin says the reality in the Middle East means even a hawk like Netanyahu will have to move toward negotiations. The status quo, Beilin says, simply cannot continue.

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