Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
January 20, 2010 - 1:00am

The first anniversary of Barack Obama’s presidency is a good time to review his performance in the Middle East, and the Middle East’s performance vis-à-vis the United States. The exercise is depressing, but useful, especially when it comes to the Arab-Israeli conflict that remains the central destabilizing factor in the wider region. It is unfair only to measure Obama’s performance, and ignore the Israeli and Arab principal players in this prolonged drama of stalemate and stagnation.

Obama started his term with a flurry of profound gestures and a few, limited moves. He reached out to and sat at the table with Iran, resumed high-level contacts with Syria, appointed George Mitchell as his peacemaking envoy, called for an Israeli settlement freeze, sought Arab gestures of acceptance of Israel, asked Israel to allow humanitarian supplies to flow into Gaza, spoke out on US-Islamic ties in Ankara and Cairo, and, once a week between January and July, hugged every Muslim in site.

These gestures set the tone for a presidency that held out great promise for new activism, ideas and advances in Arab-Israeli diplomacy. Most of them have fizzled out. Clearly, Obama gave urgency to his Arab-Israeli moves, but did not make them a priority. He focused more on issues of greater immediate importance, such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, North Korea, the economy, health care reform and relations with Russia and China. His largely inexperienced team also made some amateurish moves, like equating an Israeli settlement freeze with calls on the Arabs to make gestures of acceptance toward Israel. Washington also appeared not to apply serious diplomatic muscle in the process, beyond public rhetoric.

We still have no idea of how Obama hopes to solve the Arab-Israeli conflict, and the Palestinian-Israeli conflict in particular, because he has not articulated the US view on core issues like refugees, the ultimate status of the settlements, and Jerusalem. He has not indicated how far he is prepared to press the Israelis or Arabs. He may not do any of this in the coming year, when mid-term Congressional elections usually freeze any serious work on Israeli matters in the US, for fear that politicians may lose their seats if the pro-Israel lobby decides to oppose and unseat them.

Obama’s Arab-Israeli policy remains an unhurried work in progress, although this week’s Mideast trip by Mitchell, coming soon after that of the national security adviser, Jim Jones, may signal early steps in what might become Phase Two of Obama’s approach to resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict through a re-launching of direct negotiations.

In the face of this erratic track record by Obama, what have the Arabs and Israelis done in the past year, other than oppose, delay, irritate and obstruct the US president? If Obama gets a B for effort and a D for achievement, Arabs and Israelis probably deserve an F for their collective failure to contribute meaningfully to resolving their own conflict.

The Israelis not only refused to comply with the American demand to freeze settlements, they also pursued several other destructive, predatory or illegal and provocative actions: they expanded some settlements, house demolitions, building permit approvals and land confiscations in the West Bank, Arab East Jerusalem and the Syrian Golan Heights; they continued to steal Arab water above and below ground; they maintained a near-starvation siege on the Gaza Strip and kept killing or jailing Gaza and West Bank Palestinians at will; they continued their over-flights in Lebanon; and, they maintained Apartheid-like controls over Palestinians living in the lands occupied in 1967. All in all, a pretty normal Israeli year.

The Arabs, for their part, have been on diplomatic leave of absence this year, it seems, perhaps still celebrating the Obama victory and anticipating that the young president would save them. I cannot think of a single meaningful or constructive diplomatic move by the Arab world since the Obama election – not on Israel and Palestine, not on terrorism, not on Iran, not on weapons of mass destruction proliferation, not on Iraq, not on Sudan, not on Somalia, not on Yemen, not on Algeria, not on democratization and human rights, and not on Lebanon (well, perhaps we can celebrate that the Syrians and Saudis started talking again).

The total absence of serious Arab diplomacy or initiatives is one of the profound shortcomings of our contemporary Arab political system, in which regimes are largely immobilized on the international scene because of their near total preoccupation with maintaining power at home. It is profoundly sad to see the political passivity of the Arab region and its people – a people that once, long ago, displayed energy, fostered creativity, took initiatives, and engaged the world to make it a better place.

A year after the start of the era of Barack Obama, the Americans still come and go and speak of their dreams for the Middle East, the Israelis still act like criminals, and the Arabs insist on remaining invisible.


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