Obama Nobel Peace Prize: What Arabs think

The Obama Nobel Peace Prize is seen as inappropriate by many Arabs, who are angry about the surge of US troops into Afghanistan and a stagnant Israeli-Palestinian peace process.

Chris Helgren/Reuters
People watch a large TV screen in a park as U.S. President Barack Obama speaks after accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo on Thursday.

In Arab eyes, President Barack Obama collected his Nobel Peace Prize Thursday in Oslo at an ill-timed moment.

Days before the president departed for the prize-giving ceremony, he announced that 30,000 more American troops would be dispatched to Afghanistan, a move seemingly at odds with his status as a Nobel Peace Prize recipient and one that angers Muslims throughout the world. In addition, the Israeli-Palestinian peace track is festering two months after Obama yielded to Israel's refusal to implement a total settlement freeze in the occupied Palestinian territories, settling instead for a 10-month partial freeze

"He is a disappointment. He has done nothing," says Khodr Hayek, a businessman in the Haret Hreik neighborhood of southern Beirut, an area of staunch support for the militant Shiite Hezbollah. "If he was serious, he should have done something by now. He said Israel shouldn't build settlements, but the Israelis didn't care. No one is listening to him."

Others, however, are more inclined to give Obama a chance, saying it is too soon to dismiss the new president after only 11 months in office.

"I don't think we yet know what his Middle East policy is going to be," says Rami Khouri, director of the Issam Fares Center for Lebanon. "I don't think he has shown us all his cards yet. He has been preoccupied with other issues since taking office, such as the economy, health care, Afghanistan, North Korea, and Iran. These have been much more pressing issues for him than Arab-Israeli peace."

'I would be embarrassed to accept it'

Whether a critic or a supporter of Obama, however, few seem to believe he deserves the Nobel Peace Prize at this early stage in his presidency.

"God willing, he will be able to help us in the next three years, but I don't understand why he has been awarded the Nobel. If I was him I would be too embarrassed to accept it," says Francois Karam, a barber in Ashrafiyah, a mainly Christian district of east Beirut.

The challenge of standing at the helm of a successful peace process in the Middle East has bedeviled successive US presidents since Jimmy Carter helped broker a deal between Israel and Egypt in 1979. Ronald Reagan's two terms were marred by policy debacles in Lebanon and by the Iran contra scandal. President George H. W. Bush launched the Middle East peace process in Madrid in 1991, but six months later was out of office. The peace process became a focal point of President Bill Clinton's eight years in power. He saw breakthrough advances with the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords in 1993 and an Israel-Jordan peace treaty in 1994. But then process began to drift. President George W. Bush ignored the Middle East until the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, after which he viewed the region through the prism of the "war on terror."

Now, Obama has inherited the unenviable legacy of his predecessors – a stagnant Israeli-Palestinian track, grueling military engagements in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a looming showdown with Iran over its nuclear ambitions.

Trampling of goodwill

When Obama took office last January, Arab expectations were high that the advent of a new American presidency would signal a warmer era for US-Arab relations after the polarizing policies of the Bush administration. All seemed to be going well in those early months when Obama publicly called for a "freeze" in Israeli settlement construction in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. In June, he traveled to Cairo to deliver an address to the Arab world in which he pledged "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world."

But Washington's actions have trampled on the goodwill created by Obama's words. When the Israeli government dug in its heels and offered only to "limit" the pace of settlement construction, the Obama administration backed down. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in November described the Israeli offer as "unprecedented" and urged Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas to drop his demand for a settlement freeze as a precondition to the resumption of peace talks with Israel.

The Palestinians were further dismayed by Washington's lukewarm reception to the UN fact-finding mission, led by South African judge Richard Goldstone, into Israel's offensive against Gaza a year ago. The Goldstone report, released in September, concluded that both Israel and Hamas committed war crimes and possibly crimes against humanity. But it reserved the bulk of its criticism for the actions of Israel, which refused to cooperate with the investigation on the grounds that doing so would legitimize an effort that Israel alleged was inherently biased.

'Colorless' start to Obama's term

Obama may have good intentions, but that's not enough to "pull through with a serious peace process in the Middle East," says Sami Moubayed, a Syrian author and political analyst. "From where the Syrians see things, Obama will be judged on how things develop on the issue of the occupied Syrian Golan. And so far, nothing concrete has happened, thanks to a hard-line cabinet in Israel, and an uncooperative US Congress, that has made Obama's first 11-months, more or less, colorless when it comes to the Middle East."

Syria and Israel lately have been putting out feelers for a potential resumption of peace talks. Turkey brokered several rounds of indirect talks between Syria and Israel in 2008 until Damascus withdrew from the process in response to Israel's war on Gaza. So far, the US has proven reluctant to wade into Israeli-Syrian peacemaking, despite seeking a tentative reengagement with Damascus.

Obama's decision to dispatch 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan along with a pledge to begin withdrawing US forces by July 2011 has met with little enthusiasm in the Arab world.

"President Obama said that the days of American hegemony over other populations has come to an end, which were beautiful words reflecting a beautiful vision," said an editorial in the London-based Al-Quds al-Arabi newspaper on Dec. 3. "However, the first step to translate this vision the right way would be to pull out, recognize the mistake and stop the bloodbath entailed by the American military operations in Afghanistan."

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