By all accounts, the new American administration is moving at a frenetic pace in trying to break the seemingly interminable deadlock between Israel and the Arab world. Recent press reports suggest that George Mitchell, President Obama’s special envoy, is reaching a critical point in his negotiations with the Netanyahu government and the Palestinian authority.
Amid this whirlwind of activity, it is fair to say that the average Arab’s assessment of US policy is rather puzzled. Arabs have gotten used to the US government’s absolute bias towards Israel, a bias that reached its ultimate climax under the forgettable George W. Bush.
President Obama has spoken a different language. He seems genuinely focused on trying to build a bridge over the long years of mistrust between the Arab masses and the US political establishment.
This of course came to a head in Obama’s extraordinary Cairo speech, a speech of grand ambition that was historic in every sense of the word. Suddenly, it seemed that there is an American President who has at least an inkling of Palestinian suffering, and who wanted to talk of Palestinian rights on an equal footing with those of Israelis. Obama went as far as comparing the Palestinian struggle to that of African Americans in the US over the last two hundred years.
The tone and body language were of a kind that Arabs have not seen in years. The focus of the US administration on putting pressure on Israel to stop all settlement activity, as well as the language on how resolution of this conflict is the key to other conflicts in the region, was refreshingly empathetic.
Faced with this barrage of messages from the US administration, Arabs are reacting in various ways. On the one hand, you have so many who still find refuge in the safety of cynicism; nothing will ever change when it comes to US policy, the US administration is beholden to the agenda of AIPAC… Etc. Some Arab writers, whilst acknowledging the existence of some divergence in views between Israel and the current US administration, argue that signs of slight conflict do not represent the beginning of any real crisis in relations. A more resigned view also exists, which holds that Arabs are clutching at straws and, in fact, there is no real change in American policy.
On the other hand, you have a large number of optimistic Obama admirers who are convinced Obama will bring real and lasting change to this issue as he did to American politics. They have bought in wholesale into the Obama mantra which saw him declare on the eve of elections, “together, we will change the world.”
While we are strong admirers of Obama, we feel that the best approach, as always, is somewhere in the middle. There is the air of change in Washington for sure. We must acknowledge that element of change, and assess Obama’s policy regarding this issue with a sober and calm head. Most importantly, Arabs must react to this new policy with a positive and enabling attitude to ensure that we seize the momentum and guide it towards a just and fair solution.
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