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.

KhAlil Hamra/AP
A PALESTINIAN FRIEND? A shop owner in Gaza City displays mugs featuring portraits of Barack Obama and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

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!"

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.

"I see no reason to expect a substantial shift in policy in terms of Middle East policy," says Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies, based in Amman, Jordan.

"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?

"We live in a neighborhood in which sometimes dialogue – in a situation where you have brought sanctions, and you then shift to dialogue – is liable to be interpreted as weakness," Mrs. Livni, the head of the leading Kadima Party, said in an interview on Israel Radio. Asked if she supported any US dialogue with Iran, Livni replied: "The answer is no."

Other analysts here, however, say that Obama's arrival opens the door to compromises that would ultimately be embraced.

"I think Israel would welcome a solution to the Iranian nuke problem without a military confrontation," says Hillel Cohen, a professor at the Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. "Negotiation through Obama would be great."

Before Obama makes any peacemaking effort, he'll have to know who his peace partners will be. That is far from certain, as Israeli candidates will head into a hotly contested national election on Feb. 10. Livni, who represents a center-left ideology and has led out-of-the-limelight talks with Palestinian leaders, will face a tough battle against right-wing Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Palestinians are also unclear about their leadership. Fatah and Hamas are set to begin reconciliation talks in Cairo on Sunday. The term of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is due to end in January, and while he has not yet agreed to stay on in office, most here say that holding elections now would be an unthinkable hurdle.

Talk to Hamas?

Given Obama's expressed openness to meet with world leaders on the outs with Washington, some here wonder whether he would meet with Hamas.

"The main factor here is what Israelis want and what Palestinians want, and to what degree they are able to compromise," Professor Cohen says. "The real point is how to make Israelis and Palestinians believe in the possibility of living together, or in separate states, side-by-side. There are still many Israelis and Palestinians here who don't believe in compromise, and they have good reasons for it, and you cannot force people to live in peace if they don't want to."

Having gone to great lengths to convince supporters of the special relationship between the US and Israel, it seems unlikely and impractical that Obama would rush to shake that support base among American Jews.

"If you look into what was meant in the past by 'honest broker,' it meant that one of the main roles of the US president was to pressure Israel to be conciliatory in the conflict," Cohen adds. "But today there is the Jewish lobby and the Christian lobby in Washington who see the conflict differently, and no one in Washington can ignore them and their influence."

One indication of the way Obama might handled Middle East conflicts will be his selections for the National Security Council and Secretary of State. So far, among his key Middle East advisers are Dennis Ross, who was the main US emissary to the region during the Clinton administration; Congressman Rahm Emanuel, who has been asked to join the Obama White House team as chief of staff; and former US ambassador to Israel, Daniel Kurtzer.

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