Media Mention of Ghaith al-Omari in The New York Times - June 1, 2009 - 12:00am

WASHINGTON — As President Obama prepares to head to the Middle East this week, administration officials are debating how to toughen their stance against any expansion of Israeli settlements in the West Bank.

The measures under discussion — all largely symbolic — include stepping back from America’s near-uniform support for Israel in the United Nations if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel does not agree to a settlement freeze, administration officials said.

Other measures include refraining from the instant Security Council veto of United Nations resolutions that Israel opposes and making use of Mr. Obama’s bully pulpit to criticize the settlements, officials said. Placing conditions on loan guarantees to Israel, as the first President Bush did nearly 20 years ago, is not under discussion, officials said.

Still, talk of even symbolic actions that would publicly show the United States’ ire with Israel, its longtime ally, would be a sharp departure from the previous administration, which limited its distaste with Israel’s settlement expansions to carefully worded diplomatic statements that called them “unhelpful.”

Mr. Obama is to give a much-anticipated speech to the Muslim world from Egypt on Thursday. “There are things that could get the attention of the Israeli public,” a senior administration official said, touching on the widespread belief within the administration that any Israeli prime minister risks political peril if the Israeli electorate views him as endangering the country’s relationship with the United States.

But, the official added, “Israel is a critical United States ally, and no one in this administration expects that not to continue.” He spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the issue publicly.

White House officials said Mr. Obama would not make the Cairo speech entirely about the Arab-Israeli conflict, but would instead seek to engage Muslims on the panoply of issues facing Islam and the West, including Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran.

But the core issue, administration officials said, is the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. “I want to use the occasion to deliver a broader message about how the United States can change for the better its relationship with the Muslim world,” Mr. Obama told reporters last week. “But certainly, the issue of Middle East peace is something that is going to need to be addressed. It is a critical factor in the minds of many Arabs in countries throughout the region and beyond the region.”

The trip, stemming from a visit scheduled to commemorate trans-Atlantic ties — Mr. Obama plans to walk the beaches of Normandy with President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and visit the site of the concentration camp that his great-uncle helped liberate at Buchenwald in Germany — will also now offer Mr. Obama an opportunity to define how he plans to navigate America’s relationship with the Muslim world.

He will begin the Middle East leg of the trip in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he will take King Abdullah a wish list from not just himself, but from Israeli and Palestinian officials as well. Officials said Mr. Obama was hoping that King Abdullah would agree to make an overture to Israel that could, in turn, get Israel to move more quickly on a peace process.

Israeli officials would love to see Saudi Arabia open an interests section in Tel Aviv (Saudi Arabia would never put one in Jerusalem because Palestinians see the city as the site of their future capital), or issue a few symbolic tourist visas for Israelis, or agree to hold open meetings with Israeli counterparts. These would be a tall order for the Arab kingdom, which has, thus far, eschewed taking much of a role that could be seen as acknowledging Israel.

Meanwhile, Palestinian officials want Mr. Obama to prod King Abdullah to provide more aid for the Palestinian Authority, which the Saudis have largely set aside in recent months as the Palestinian political system has become increasingly fractured.

White House officials said they wanted greater Arab acceptance of Mr. Obama’s peace plans. But past American presidents — particularly George W. Bush — had sought the same without much luck.

“Now that Obama has raised the pressure on the Israelis when it comes to settlement freeze, it’s time to start raising pressure on the Arab states for something in return,” said Ghaith al-Omari, a former negotiator for Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian Authority president. “Saudi is the key to unlocking the rest of the Arab world.”

Saudi Arabia may also be part of the key to addressing the morass in Pakistan. Obama administration officials are hoping to get Saudi Arabia to use its influence with the Pakistani opposition leader, Nawaz Sharif, to figure out a way to bring some stability to Pakistan’s tumultuous politics as President Asif Ali Zardari becomes increasingly unpopular.

In addition, Mr. Obama will probably touch on his outreach to Iran, and his withdrawal plans for Iraq. He will talk about his decision to shut down the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, and refer in his speech to the contributions of Muslims to American society and the world as a whole, aides said.

But Mr. Obama’s remarks in Egypt, though aimed at the Muslim world, will also be carefully parsed in Israel, foreign policy experts said. The president will be walking a fine line between reassuring Israel that America will remain a guarantor of Israeli security and between sounding a warning that he is getting impatient with the slow movement toward Palestinian statehood.

When asked on Thursday what he would do if Mr. Netanyahu continued to balk at a settlement freeze, Mr. Obama said he was not yet ready to offer an “or else.” “In my conversations with Prime Minister Netanyahu, I was very clear about the need to stop the settlements; to make sure that we are stopping the building of outposts; to work with the Palestinian Authority in order to alleviate some of the pressures that the Palestinian people are under in terms of travel and commerce,” Mr. Obama said.

“That conversation only took place last week.”


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