Steven W. Barnes, Nadia Bilbassy
The Daily Star
August 31, 2009 - 12:00am

Two international opinion polls released this summer indicate that global views toward the US are improving – in no small part due to the election of Barack Obama as president. The polls, by the Pew Global Attitudes Project and, both stress that Obama is viewed positively in most of the countries surveyed, but questions remain in the Middle East about the direction of US policies.

Conducting an informal survey of analysts from or based in the Arab world, the experts with whom we spoke emphatically agree: To increase and sustain US standing in the Middle East, Obama must achieve some gains – quickly – with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

In the Middle East, “People seem to trust President Obama and are willing to give him the benefit of the doubt,” said Amjad Attallah, director of the Middle East program at the New America Foundation, a think tank. The analysts concur that since taking office the president has made all the right moves, speaking with a respectful and rational tone to Arabs and Muslims about US foreign policy toward the region.

While the US presence in Iraq, as well as democracy and human rights in the region, are key issues, “the Palestinian-Israeli issue is on the consciousness of every Arab and Muslim everywhere in the world,” said Salameh Nematt, international editor for the popular Daily Beast blog.

Faris Brizat, a pollster and adjunct professor at Qatar University, warned, “There is a growing sense of apathy, people are losing faith,” in the Arab world that Mideast peace can be achieved. Summing up the thoughts of every expert with whom we spoke, Nematt stated, “[Obama] has got to deliver something.”

Even as the White House has set in motion a multi-pronged diplomatic initiative in the region, the environment in which the Obama administration must operate in many ways could not be more challenging: In the Palestinian territories the long-dominant Fatah party controls the West Bank, while Hamas, which refuses to recognize Israel, controls Gaza.

Indeed, Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah recently lamented that such internal divisions have done more damage “in a few months” to the Palestinians’ cause than had years of conflict with Israel.

And while Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has come to endorse the two-state solution supported by the White House, Netanyahu, citing security concerns, thus far has refused to freeze Israeli settlement activity in the West Bank, and has insisted that the issue of Palestinian refugees must be solved outside Israel’s borders.

Subsequently, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian scholar and democracy activist, argues that whatever plan Obama devises, he should “speak to Israelis and Palestinians directly about the benefits of resolving the conflict, and in doing so bring people back into the political process, rather than relying on their leaders who have been dragging their feet for over 60 years.”

In fact, in August senior White House officials told reporters that the administration, building on the success of the president’s June speech in Cairo, plans to launch a public relations campaign directed at Israeli, Palestinian, and Arab publics, to articulate the president’s comprehensive vision for Mideast peace.

This plan was echoed by a recent report, “Window of Opportunity for a Two-State Solution,” from the Center for American Progress, a think tank, which encouraged the Obama administration to launch a “public outreach and strategic communications effort in the Middle East,” with the aim of “[building] the foundations of public support and to prepare public opinion for the likely concessions involved” in any final deal.

Such a campaign, the report’s authors assert, “cannot wait for an actual negotiated agreement that can then be ‘sold’” to these publics.

Achieving gains in the peace process involves overcoming vast historical, diplomatic, and policy challenges, which cannot be swept aside by a PR campaign. But failing to engage in a strategic outreach initiative and conducting effective public diplomacy in the pursuit of policy interests does have consequences for peace.

For example, Hady Amr, director of the Brookings Doha Center in Qatar, asserted that the Arab League has lost a crucial opportunity to effectively explain its peace plan, endorsed by all of its members, to Israelis. “If the Arab countries really wanted to eliminate all doubts that they’re serious about the plan, they would’ve translated their peace plan into Hebrew [and] taken out ads in Israeli newspapers,” Amr said. “This is an era of global public relations.”

Though major foreign policy decisions and high-level diplomacy should not be determined by public opinion polls, in the Mideast Obama clearly has a chance to build on his reputation and what some experts described as his likeability based on his personal narrative. “The industry of America-bashing is not thriving as it was before Obama,” quipped Ibrahim.

The US should communicate that it is serious about its commitment to the peace process, demonstrating to all parties that the benefits of peace, particularly in the form of US support and solidarity, outweigh the costs of conflict. Otherwise, the White House risks squandering such leverage and losing credibility with publics in a region critical to America’s interests.


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