Joyce Karam
Dar Al-Hayat (Opinion)
August 12, 2009 - 12:00am

In addressing one of its most pivotal foreign policy challenges in the Middle East, the Obama administration needs to moderate its lexicon in framing the negotiations and expectations on the Peace Process. Using words such as “normalize” in addressing the responsibilities of Arab governments and sending mixed signals on its call for a “complete” settlement freeze from Israel, is creating misperceptions in the Arab Street of the administration’s efforts and undermining its objectives.

The methodical rejection of high level Arab delegations visiting Washington in the last two weeks, mainly the Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud Al-Faisal, Kuwaiti Emir Sheikh Sabah al-Ahmad al-Sabah, and Jordanian Foreign Minister Nasser Jodeh of the equation that Arabs have to take steps towards normalization in return for Israeli compromises, should not have come as a surprise to the Obama administration. Aside from the political complexes accompanying the US demands, the word “normalize” or Tatbe’e in Arabic, carries a negative component in the Arab Street and is used by radical groups such as Hizballah and Hamas (the same that the administration is trying to isolate) to attack moderate governments and accuse them of “submitting” to the West, accepting “defeat” and giving up “resistance” against Israel. In the Wye River Negotiations which occurred between Syrian and Israeli negotiators in 1995-1996, the two sides battled out the use of “normalization”, with Damascus insisting on the more acceptable term: “normal peaceful relations”.

The Obama administration, should frame its argument differently, by utilizing words such as “regional input” or “steps towards peace” or “broader regional openness and cooperation” instead of normalization. These phrases still target the same objective which is comprehensive peace and new multilateral framework in the Middle East seeking wide partnerships on the issues of water, security, and economy involving both Arabs and Israelis, without amplifying the divisions and historical baggage that normalization terminology brings. The Arab Peace Initiative launched in 2002 is clear in putting normalization and any steps in that direction as an end goal and not at the outset of the process.

The other pitfall that the administration is walking into entails the request for Settlement Freeze from the Israeli government. The demand which the administration announced in May initially called for a complete settlement freeze: “a stop to settlements. Not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exceptions” as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has framed it then, and it has gained lot of traction in the Arab Street. However, two months into the negotiations between Washington and Tel Aviv, the administration has amended its language. Secretary Clinton and other senior officials have refrained lately from using the word “complete” or “total freeze”, thus lowering the bar on any kind of agreement that Envoy George Mitchell might get from the Israeli government.

Any compromise on the issue short of a “complete” settlement freeze that the administration had set forth in the beginning will be perceived as a sign of inconsistency and flexibility on part of the U.S., in the Arab world, and will further deflate the momentum that this administration has created on the Peace Process. The US diplomatic peace team led by Senator Mitchell, should be crafting a more nuanced lexicon in addressing the conflict, and avoiding an inconsistent one in setting the expectations.


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