George S. Hishmeh
Gulf News (Opinion)
July 22, 2009 - 12:00am

Six months have passed since Barack Obama settled in the White House, a precedent-setting achievement for an African-American, and yet he now seems inexplicably hesitant to follow up his initial and commendable step in resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

His early appointment of former Senator George J. Mitchell as a special Middle East peace envoy had won him international praise by all parties including Palestinians and Israelis who were cognizant of his role in helping settle the Irish conflict in Northern Ireland. But there were several missed opportunities that the American president or his staff could have taken despite his overwhelming problems at home and in other regions of the world.

For a start, Hillary Clinton, the secretary of State, did not live up to expectations when she spoke last week at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, DC. In what has been billed as a "major foreign policy speech," she had nothing that was original or new. "We've been working with the Israelis to deal with the issue of (illegal) settlements [colonies], to ease the living conditions of the Palestinians," she told her audience, and "create circumstances that can lead to the establishment of a viable [Palestinian] state."

Although she stressed that she expects "action" from the Israelis, the former New York senator added, cryptically, "we recognise that these decisions are politically challenging." Aren't they all?

But as far as the Arab states are concerned, she emphasised in the same breath that they are "particularly [expected] to assist us by stepping up and making clear that they are truly going to support the two-state solution." She again overlooked the Arab offer on a silver platter to recognise Israel once a settlement is reached with the Palestinians, Syrians and Lebanese.

The continued silence of the Obama administration, be it the president or his foreign secretary, over recent Israeli drastic actions particularly the recent damning testimonies of Israeli soldiers who revealed that during the Gaza invasion last January they were repeatedly encouraged by their officers to use civilians as human shields. Isn't that silence shocking and bewildering?!

Israel was asked for a start by President Obama to take a small step in order to pave the road for full negotiations with its neighbours: freeze all housing construction in - and not evacuate - illegal Israeli colonies in the occupied West Bank.

But Israel refused to budge and last Sunday Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu thumbed his nose at Obama when he defended new housing construction in the occupied Palestinian neighbourhoods of occupied Jerusalem where the Palestinians hope to establish their capital alongside Israel's.

"Our sovereignty over [the usurped neighbourhood] cannot be challenged," was Netanyahu's arrogant response while the State Department merely reasserted the international position that this should be decided when final negotiations resume.

President Obama appears to be uneasy about dropping the gauntlet at this stage. Israelis have been agitating, as did former Prime Minister Ehud Olmert in an Op-Ed column in The Washington Post last Friday that "[colony] construction should be taken off the public agenda and moved to discreet dialogue, as in the past."

But Obama ought to realise that these major foreign policy issues need a quick American corrective. Helping him out to tackle these hotspots has been Mitchell on the Arab-Israeli conflict, Charles Holbrooke on Iran and Afghanistan, and lately Dennis Ross, who has surprisingly been reassigned recently from the State Department to the White House in the office of General James Jones, the national security adviser.

On the other hand, beefing up the White House staff with these seasoned officials, among others, have raised some hope and concern, as well. And Hillary Clinton, who has been out of circulation after she broke her elbow, has yet to identify her role in shepherding the Mideast peace process. Interestingly her address at Council on Foreign Relations did not receive front-page attention in leading US papers.

Although the American image overseas has received a boost under Obama, former National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski sounded cautious when he was quoted as saying "it's too early to say if they have sufficient steadiness and determination to implement [the new tone]".

The much-too-promised new tone of the Obama administration may yet come but the longer it will take the burdened American president, whose popularity rating has been dropping lately, the more difficult it will be for him to proceed.


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