Will Obama change course in the Middle East?
Some Arabs see him as more of an 'honest broker' in the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But that conflict may not be a priority.
President-elect Barack Obama represents a couple of significant firsts for the peoples of the Middle East: the first US president with Muslim parentage (father), the first US president to have spent years living abroad in a Muslim nation (Indonesia). In one editorial cartoon in an Israeli newspaper, two local men were depicted as smiling and saying, "finally, an Eastern president!"Skip to next paragraph
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But whatever goodwill – or ill will – such biographical details may generate, it could fade quickly when faced with complexities of finding solutions to the multiple conflicts in the Middle East.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the region now, perhaps for the last time, shuttling between the Palestinians, Israelis, and Arab allies. But the Israeli-Palestinian conflict may not be at the top of the next US administration's agenda.
There are other flash points, such instability in Lebanon and how to order priorities in Iraq and Afghanistan. And, there's the global economic crisis. Some analysts here say Obama may find the Israeli-Palestinian track too hot to handle early in his administration.
"You can't make a huge U-turn as soon as you're elected, and any incoming president will quickly see two things about this conflict. It's been there for over half a century. You can easily get your hands burned," says Mr. Rabbani. "I think he'll say, let's deal with what are more pressing concerns first, which are Iraq and Afghanistan, which have more active involvement of the American military."
In the eyes of some in the Arab world, Obama could represent a return to the role of America as an "honest broker" in the Arab-Israeli conflict, a once-touted image that has waned over the eight years of the Bush administration. Many in the region see the US as overtly pro-Israel.
But during the election campaign, Rabbani says, Obama's policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not sound significantly different from his Republican competitor's.
"If there were serious differences, you'd need to get the equivalent of a Hubble microscope to see it," Rabbani quips. "On the Middle East, you didn't see any major difference, except maybe a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq."
But Israelis are concerned that there may be a policy shift on some key issues, Iran foremost among them. While the Bush administration preferred tough talk on the nuclear program of President Mahmoud Ahmedinajad – backed up by the prospect of an Israeli air strike on Iran's nuclear enrichment program – Obama has said that he would seek dialogue first.
This possibility clearly has Israel's security-minded establishment worried. Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni said that Obama's willingness to talk to Iran could be seen as a sign of weakness.
Is dialogue weakness?