George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News (Opinion)
February 11, 2009 - 1:00am

Barack Obama does not expect to be woken up at 3am over any imminent Middle East crisis. The Iranians were apparently pleased with his offer to start a dialogue during his very first live press conference, and the Israeli elections apparently have returned the ruling Kadima party to power although it is not yet certain whether Tzipi Livni will be able to form a new coalition government on the second try.

But the American President will have to be prepared to stay up late if he is to review his options and reiterate his commitment to a Palestinian-Israeli settlement; even total peace between Israel and the Arab states as promised in the Arab Peace Initiative.

Meantime, Obama cannot continue to duck his head as he did during his televised press conference when Helen Thomas, the seasoned American journalist, tried to pin him down on whether he knew of "any country in the Middle East that has nuclear weapons". It is common knowledge that Israel is the only state in that region that has nuclear arms and, thanks to American support, has yet to sign the nuclear non-proliferation treaty, much to the chagrin of many. But Obama may have opted to remain silent because he did not wish to influence the ongoing Israeli vote one way or another.

Another serious issue that has baffled the Arab world has been Obama's failure to condemn the Israeli invasion of Gaza that led to a disproportionately high rate of civilian casualties, including hundreds of women and children, and the destruction of thousands of homes, schools and mosques. He also could do well to drop the word "terrorist" in reference to Hezbollah, now a member of the Lebanese government, and Hamas which is likely to return to the Palestinian fold.

A recent report released by a National Lawyers Guild delegation after visiting Gaza said the team found "strong indications of violations of the laws of war and possible war crimes committed by Israel." It further added that the delegation was "particularly concerned" that most of the Israeli weapons that were used during the invasion of Gaza were "US-made and supplied ... constituting a violation of US laws, and particularly the Foreign Assistance Act and the US Arms Export Control Act."

The delegation plans to submit its findings of the "egregious crimes that we have documented" to the US Congress and other international organisations for appropriate action.

Obama may not feel very enthusiastic about the indecision emerging from the Israeli elections where the front-runners, Livni and Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party, do not have a commanding lead. To do that either would have to join ranks with Avigdor Lieberman, the rising star and potential kingmaker of the extreme right-wing party, Yisrael Beitenu.

Livni may merge with one-time partner, the Labour party of Ehud Barak. Horse trading will be necessary in order to tip the balance and gain the necessary 61 votes for winning the confidence of the 120-member Knesset.

Likewise is the situation among the splintered Palestinian ranks but there are promising signs that Fatah and Hamas may patch up their differences and form a national unity government.

What remains more troubling than the actual mathematics of the Israeli election results are the uncompromising views emanating from various political camps - most in violation of various UN resolutions. None of the top Israeli leaders, for example, have been caught using the word "peace".

The record shows that Livni's Kadima supports the establishment of a demilitarised Palestinian state in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, keeping occupied Jerusalem as Israel's undivided capital, and keeping the "large" Jewish colonies in the Israeli-occupied West Bank under Israeli control. Moreover, Kadima is against any Palestinian refugees returning to their homes in Israel.

Netanyahu's Likud for its part has avoided any mention of the establishment of a Palestinian state, but believes that offering an economic plan to the Palestinians will "create a positive atmosphere that will significantly improve the chances of a peace process". It also rejects the return of Palestinian refugees to Israel or the handing back of the Golan Heights to Syria. Occupied Jerusalem, it asserts, must remain undivided and under Israeli control.

Lieberman's Yisrael Beitenu wants to seal Israel's borders with the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip, insists that Palestinian Arabs in Israel - about one-fifth of the population - take the oath of allegiance, and seeks to keep the large Israeli colonies in the West Bank and return to the Palestinians the so-called "triangle", a region of Israel where Arabs are in significantly higher number.

But Ori Nir, a spokesman for Americans for Peace Now, said in a statement that "whoever forms the next coalition in Israel will have to "face a reality that calls for pragmatism and moderation and a new American President with a strong mandate to pursue Israeli-Arab peace". He added, "It is time to move beyond campaign slogans and start implementing policies that can move Israel toward peace with her neighbours."

Obama may have to start considering some arm-twisting techniques during his sleepless nights without which peace in the Middle East could remain a distant goal.


American Task Force on Palestine - 1634 Eye St. NW, Suite 725, Washington DC 20006 - Telephone: 202-262-0017