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.

Tara Todras-Whitehill/AP
Palestinian girls walk near a Obama billboard in the West Bank city of Ramallah. Some Arabs have shown disappointment in the president's failure to gain ground on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A year after President Obama pledged a new beginning to US-Muslim relations in a historic speech here, much of the excitement he inspired is turning to disappointment.

The Cairo speech, in which Mr. Obama outlined a relationship based on mutual interests and respect, left many in the region hopeful of significant change from Bush policies. But while many still believe that Obama has good intentions, the perception that he has failed to deliver on his promises has deflated those hopes and led some to conclude he is backing down from positions laid out on June 4 last year.

Former investment banker Rana Jarbou of Saudi Arabia says none of Obama's efforts so far have been in line with the "new beginning" he pledged. She has been disappointed with what she views as a turn to Bush-era rhetoric about terrorism, which she fears could be used as a pretext for attacking Iran, and what she calls his unilateral decision to send more troops to Afghanistan.

"With regard to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, no concrete steps have been made, and the whole region is definitely affected and influenced by this conflict," says Ms. Jarbou, now an aspiring social entrepreneur. "It didn't take too long to make note of his contradictory approach."

Israel's raid May 31 on a humanitarian flotilla set for Gaza, which left at least nine activists dead and brought fierce criticism on Israel from governments around of world, has brought further calls for Obama to prove he is an ally to Muslim countries.

"The US response to Israel’s disproportionate use of violence against innocent civilians constitutes a test case for US credibility in the Middle East," Suat Kiniklioglu, the ruling AK (Justice and Development) Party’s deputy chairman of external affairs, said in a op-ed. "The United States will itself determine what sort of Middle East it will be dealing with in the future by its response to Israel’s actions."

In his Cairo speech, Obama promised to fight violent extremism in a way that engages, not alienates, the Muslim world; to work to resolve the Iranian nuclear situation; and to support democracy in the region.

Israeli-Palestinian conflict undermines Obama

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.

"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.

Activists wanted more democracy reforms

Obama's cool approach to democracy promotion has not gone unnoticed, however.

Regional democracy activists complain bitterly that the Obama administration has not pressured the region's undemocratic regimes to enact reforms, as the Bush administration did in 2004-05 before backing off.

Egypt is a key example: US funding for democracy programming in Egypt has been cut, while the US agreed to fund only nongovernmental organizations approved by the Egyptian government.

The Obama administration is also considering creating an endowment for Egypt to would lock aid in for 10 years, making it less likely for Congress to withhold aid to punish the Egyptian regime for its human rights failings.

Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian democracy activist who lives in exile after being sentenced for "defaming" Egypt, says Obama's policies are harming democracy movements in the Middle East. "We have to fight our own battle for democracy," says Dr. Ibrahim, now a visiting professor at Drew University in Madison, N.J. "But the least the great powers can do is withhold their support from tyrants."

Some recognize it is too early to fully judge the Obama administration's policies in the Middle East. But Mustapha Kamal al-Sayyid, an independent analyst and political science professor at the American University in Cairo, says the US has weakened its hand in the region with its retreat on the settlement issue and its failure to improve relations with Syria or change Iran's behavior.

"The leading powers in the regions are those who are opposed to the US – Iran, Syria, to a certain extent Hezbollah – those are the actors that take the initiative and who influence the course of events in the region. Friends of the US do not take initiative, and are not capable of setting the agenda in the region," he says.


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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.