Arabs losing hope in Obama's ability to broker Mideast peace

In a push for progress, three heavy hitters from the administration – Mitchell, Gates, and Jones – visited the region this week.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Nearly two months after President Obama's historic address to the Muslim world from Cairo, his administration made a high-profile drive this week to shore up Arab and Israeli support for a comprehensive peace deal.

A trio of senior officials – US Mideast envoy George Mitchell, Defense Secretary Robert Gates, and US National Security Advisor James Jones – have visited officials throughout the region, with particular emphasis on Israel.

Since his June 4 Cairo speech, Mr. Obama has shown a new US willingness to take Israel to task for its expansion of settlements in the West Bank. But he has simultaneously begun to press the Arab world to do its part to foster peace, sending letters in advance of this week's visits to encourage action from leaders who are reluctant to make a move before Israel agrees to end the official state of war with its Arab neighbors.

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"There's far more motion right now in US policy," says Phyllis Bennis, a fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies in Washington.

But Mr. Obama and his team are running up against Arab skepticism. Though Obama still commands credibility in the eyes of many citizens from Syria to Saudi Arabia, many are still waiting for clear progress – or even a concrete plan.

"Where is this initiative?" asks Saudi businessman Turki F. Al Rasheed, who says Obama has retained credibility among Saudis despite doubts about what he can accomplish. "There is talk, but no initiative. If Obama wants peace, he has to come up with a clear-cut plan," not requests for Arab states "to give Israelis a nice gesture."

'There's only so much Obama can do'

The Saudis came up with such a plan in 2002, but Israel has yet to act on it. The so-called Arab Peace Initiative offers Israel full diplomatic normalization and peace with all Arab states in return for the establishment of a Palestinian state with its capital in a shared Jerusalem

From the Arab perspective, to give a dramatic gesture in advance of an Israeli halt to settlement expansion in the Palestinian territories – which many see as jeopardizing an eventual Palestinian state – would open Arab governments to criticism from their own people for giving something away for nothing.

"Normalization comes after achieving these goals, not before it," Saudi Foreign Ministry spokesman Osama Nugali told Agence France-Presse this week. "As we all know, Israel is continuing to take unilateral measures by changing the geographic and demographic facts on the ground, by building settlements and expanding the existing ones."

The Obama administration has publicly insisted that Israel freeze all expansion – even in East Jerusalem, which Israel claims as part of its undivided and eternal capital.

So far, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has defied Washington's demand, though senior US officials have indicated that an agreement is forthcoming.

"Netanyahu has made it clear from the very start that he's not interested in peace," says Sami Moubayed, a political analyst in the Syrian capital, Damascus. "It shows you exactly what the Syrians have been saying for the last three or four months: There is no peace partner today. People thought Barack Obama would have enough clout to force Netanyahu to change his attitude, but there's only so much Obama can do."

Saudis also express doubt that Obama will succeed.

"We think Obama maybe came at the wrong time [because], unfortunately, with the current Israeli government, we think there is no hope to make any progress," says one senior civil servant who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to speak on the matter. 

Mr. Rasheed, the Saudi businessman, points out that when Netanyahu visited the White House in May, "he basically told Obama to get lost. So now, what is the president of the United States going to do?"

He notes that many of Obama's close Mideast advisers are considered pro-Israeli – a point echoed by Zaim Abdullah, an unemployed recent graduate of Sanaa University in Yemen, who argues that Obama is so sympathetic to the Jewish perspective that he practically shares their religion. But Mr. Abdullah also criticizes Arabs.

"Arab countries, if unified, could destroy everyone, but they are all divided," he says. "That is the biggest problem."

Obama's Mideast policy needs teeth

Many Arabs are looking for a tougher approach from Obama, with some invoking a popular Arabic saying: "You can't chew meat unless you have some teeth."

"We're willing to make peace, but we want the [Israeli-occupied] Golan [Heights] back," says Ahmad, a taxi driver in Damascus. "Until the Americans match their actions with their words and put the Israelis under real pressure, nothing will happen."

But others are more optimistic. "His credibility is [high] and a lot of people have a lot of hopes invested in him," says Muhammed al-Katatni, a Muslim Brotherhood-affiliated member of Egypt's parliament.

In Syria, there was a new surge of enthusiasm after Mitchell informed President Bashar al-Assad this weekend that the Obama administration would work to ease US sanctions. The US also recently announced that it would send an ambassador to Syria, ending a four-year hiatus in diplomatic relations.

"That Mitchell has come twice in such a short period of time shows that the Americans are serious [about restarting peace talks]. This is a sign that something is happening, that they are going into more details," says Thabet Salem, a Syrian political analyst.

"The Syrians are happy ... because the Americans are bringing the Israelis back to reason," he says. "They believe that the Americans are serious about doing something this time."

Saudis fed up with Palestinian infighting

Palestinians, meanwhile, have been trying to sway Arab countries from moving toward normalization.

"The Arabs must also remember that they have offered the maximum they can give through the Arab initiative, and until now, Israel did not move one inch forward to show that it is serious about peace," Mohammad al-Soudy wrote Wednesday in the West Bank-based newspaper al-Ayyam newspaper. "The Arabs must also remember that it is easy for Israel to resume settlement expansion, but it is very difficult for them [Israel] to revoke normalization once they start with it."

Saudi Arabia, which, together with Egypt, has the clout to push the Arab Peace Inititiave forward, is loath to budge without a move from Israel. But it's also fed up with Palestinian infighting, says Abdullah A. Al Shammri, a Saudi political observer.

"We are feeling cool to the Palestinian issue, since we are seeing Palestinian fighting and arguing every day. We consider it ... a shame that they are killing each other and arguing with each other." 

In addition, the Saudi public is divided about which Palestinian faction to support. While the government is pro-Fatah, many influential religious and business figures favor Hamas. These divisions, and the public's impatience with Palestinian internal dissension, lessen the government's willingness to take dramatic steps, Mr. Shammri adds.

Still, some Saudis are not yet ready to dismiss Obama's efforts.

"I think it's too early in the game to say the efforts are not a success. We really need to give this time," says a Saudi who keeps in touch with the royal court. Recalling the landmark 1979 peace deal between Israel and Egypt reached at Camp David, he notes: "It was a long time before a deal was consummated."

Caryle Murphy, Ashraf Khalil in Cairo, Julien Barnes-Dacey in Damascus, and Benedict Moran in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed reporting.

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