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Obama's stature among Muslims slips over Israeli-Palestinian standoff

A year after Barack Obama's famous Cairo speech, failure to make headway in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has become a focal point for disappointment among Muslims. Sixty percent of Arabs say he's too weak to deliver a peace agreement.

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But perhaps most prominent to the Muslim world was his pledge to take real steps to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. His failure to make significant progress on that front – in particular on convincing Israel to implement a full settlement freeze in the West Bank and East Jerusalem – has become a regional focal point for disappointment, and a gauge of his commitment to advance a new era of US policy in the Middle East.

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"Obama promised he would solve the Arab-Israeli conflict for good, not just push ahead with the process. But in fact he's just pushing ahead with the process," says Joshua Landis, director of the University of Oklahoma's Center for Middle East Studies and a renowned expert on Syria. "And as long as that happens, things are going to be bad."

According to a recent poll conducted by YouGov, 60 percent of Arabs now believe Obama is too weak to deliver a peace agreement. (The poll also found that 58 percent believe Obama has good intentions.) Landis says Obama quickly realized the political costs of a commitment to a two-state solution and backed off. That is now costing the US dearly in its relations with regional allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia, which have already begun distancing themselves from some US policies.

"At the end of the day, if we look at Obama's harvest in the Middle East, we've lost friends, we haven't gained them," he says.

'People are still listening to the US'

Such a dim view of Obama's performance is not universal, however. Amr Hamzawy, research director at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, Lebanon, contends the Obama administration has done well on many of its promises. On the peace process, "given the conditions on the ground, the administration has done well," he says.

Mr. Hamzawy also points out that in Iraq, elections were held and the US is sticking to its timeline for withdrawal of combat troops. On Iran, the administration attempted engagement, as it had pledged, before it turned to sanctions.

"Everyone recognizes the fact that here you have a president whose intentions are the right ones and is trying to push in the right direction," he says. "People are once again listening to what the US is saying, which was not the case in the last years."

Some of the administration's efforts have gone relatively unnoticed. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton launched the Partners for a New Beginning initiative in April, following up on Obama's commitment to economic development and opportunity in the region. But the announcement was made in Washington, and few in the Middle East appear to be aware of this US effort.

Obama pledged to advance a new era of US policy in the Middle East, one based on mutual interest and respect. But his inability to make headway, especially on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, has opened the way for other regional actors – such as Iran, Syria, and Hezbollah – to wield more influence.