Palestinian statehood: why Arabs have turned on Obama

A year ago, President Obama wowed the United Nations General Assembly by announcing that he looked forward to welcoming an independent Palestine into the community of nations in 12 months. Yet there he was last week, explaining why he would veto a Palestinian statehood bid in the UN Security Council.

Mr. Obama, who made Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority from the outset of his administration, is now the US leader with incongruously bad relations with the Arab world. Here are three key causes of the deterioration in relations – and three steps that the United States can take to mend ties.

United Nations, N.Y.

Rhetoric vs. reality

President Obama toured the Sultan Hassan Mosque in Cairo with Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton in June 2009, the day he gave his ‘A New Beginning’ speech to the Arab world at Cairo University. (Gerald Herbert/AP/File)

"There's a sense the US is not doing what it set out to do," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "The president says he's going to do things, and those things don't happen."

The standout example of the gulf between rhetoric and reality is Obama's lofty speech in Cairo in June 2009 – in which he talked about a new beginning in US relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, based on mutual respect and understanding.

But it's hardly the only example. On his second full day in office, Obama named former Sen. George Mitchell as his Mideast envoy, raising high hopes. But after scant progress, Mr. Mitchell resigned this past May.

Also playing a role, some say: a sense of US hesitation over what to do as Hosni Mubarak teetered in Egypt early this year.

For US interests, Arab Spring was a 'mine field'

As authoritarian Arab regimes started to crumble this year, many Arab intellectuals looked at what they saw as America's halting response and concluded that Obama risked ending up on the wrong side of history. But what they were really seeing, some regional experts say, was the reality of US interests trumping other motivations and sometimes even ideals.

"The Arab world may have thought that the problem with America was George W. Bush, but what both Obama and the Arabs discovered is that it's not just a matter of public relations," says Ariel Roth, director of global security studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Sometimes American interests are in direct conflict with the articulated interests of the Arab world."

Dr. Roth points to the kid gloves that the US has donned to deal with Bahrain's aggressive response to protests. This is explained by the fact that the US Fifth Fleet is stationed there.

Overall, the task for the US earlier this year quickly became how to shift from supporting authoritarian regimes to advocating their democratic replacements while safeguarding the region's stability. Inevitably, some groups were going to feel disappointed, says Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation in Washington.

Arab solidarity on Palestinian issue

For decades, some regional scholars said the notion of Arab solidarity with the Palestinians was a myth. But the controversy over their statehood has demonstrated, some argue, that the Palestinian struggle is a matter of pride and fairness among Arabs – especially as the international community champions other younger pro-independence conflicts.

"There's a whole body of work out there built around the notion that the Palestinian issue doesn't matter [to the Arabs], but it resonates and it does matter," says Mr. Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator.

Repairing US-Arab relations won't be easy. Some say that Obama's options are limited by, among other things, a Congress (and not just conservative Republicans) that is increasingly pro-Israel and dismissive of America's traditional role as an honest broker in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Obama’s reelection campaign could also factor in.

Nevertheless, in the next pages are three key steps that would help.

Maintain US aid to Arabs – including Palestinians

In the overheated run-up to Palestinian action at the UN, demands multiplied – mostly from Congress, but in particular from GOP presidential aspirant Rick Perry – that the US cut its substantial security and economic aid to Palestinians if they pressed forward on statehood through the UN. But such a reaction, most analysts say, could be counterproductive and even work against Israeli security interests.

The US must not let the 2012 presidential campaign "paralyze its actions and good judgment," warns Anthony Cordesman, CSIS senior national-security analyst. He says that cuts in US aid to the Palestinian Authority should be off the table – for the sake of Palestinian moderates as well as for Israel, which works closely with Palestinian security forces.

Moreover, the US must reassure Arab states that it will continue to support change in countries like Egypt and Tunisia, Dr. Cordesman says, even as it withdraws from Iraq.

Keep up pressure on Iran

Not all Arab states are equally concerned about Iran's push to expand its influence, but the Gulf states and especially Saudi Arabia are keen to see Iran's aims thwarted.

By keeping up its watch on Iran's activities, some say, the US can reassure its Arab partners that it is not turning its back on them. Maintaining pressure on Syria's pro-Iran regime of Bashar al-Assad is another plus.

Negotiate a way to yes on Palestinian statehood

Obama's unnuanced "no" to the Palestinians' UN statehood bid is the equivalent of telling them to "stay in the back of the bus," says Steve Clemons, a senior fellow at the New America Foundation.

What it boils down to is siding with the status quo, which delegitimizes Palestinian moderates, Mr. Clemons says. It's an approach, he adds, that plays into the hands of extremists by sending the message that compromise and nonviolence don't work.

Instead, the US should find a way, through negotiation and compromise, to vote yes when statehood eventually comes to a UN vote, some argue.

"There's still time to pull this back from the precipice. So the US goal should be to negotiate a package deal that says 'yes, with conditions,' " to a Palestinian state, says Roth of Johns Hopkins. Such a deal, he says, could include barring Palestinians from seeking any kind of military or economic sanctions on Israel for a decade, to allow time for the two states to negotiate outstanding differences.

As problematic as moving ahead on a statehood resolution would be for both the US and Israel, Roth says, the interests of neither will be served if the region – and history – judges the US as "thwarting the aspirations of an Arab people."