May 20, 2011

Obama's Stand on Israel Wins no Points in Arab World

In the eyes of many Arab viewers, President Barack Obama struck the right tone with the first three-quarters of his highly anticipated speech Thursday on the Middle East and North Africa, where popular rebellions are reshaping the region’s relationship with the United States.

He talked tough on Bahrain, defended the NATO-led campaign in Libya, issued an ultimatum to Syria, took a swipe at Yemen’s stubborn ruler and pledged a multibillion-dollar aid package to Egypt and Tunisia.

But then came his remarks about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the decades-old battle at the heart of much of the Arab world’s disenchantment with U.S. policies. The support garnered by Obama’s praise for young revolutionaries seeking dignity evaporated as Obama talked about the “unshakeable” U.S. bond with Israel.

“It kind of sucks all the air out of the room,” Michael Hanna, a Middle East scholar at the Century Foundation, a New York-based research center, said about the speech’s last few paragraphs. “This is something that, at all times, cuts to the core.”

Obama made only passing mention of Israel’s continued building of illegal Jewish settlements on Palestinian lands, which his administration has sought and failed to get the Israelis to stop. He also stressed that the United States would oppose the Palestinian leadership’s efforts toward passage of a resolution recognizing a Palestinian state at the U.N. General Assembly.

Instead, Obama appeared to put the onus for peace negotiations on the newly reconciled Palestinian factions, singling out the Islamist group Hamas for failing to recognize Israel’s right to exist.

“Obama needs to stop adding slogans and start taking concrete steps to protect the rights of the Palestinian people and the Arab nation,” said Hamas spokesman Sami Abu Zuhri.

Israeli politicians appeared happy with the speech. Minister Gilad Erdan, a close ally of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, called it “a good base” for the prime minister’s meeting with Obama, scheduled for Friday.

Arab views, expressed by commentators and average citizens alike, were considerably more downbeat. Many noted that Obama ignored longstanding Arab demands.

Not even Obama’s declaration that negotiations for a Palestinian state must start from the pre-1967 lines, with some agreed-upon territorial swaps, won praise, with commentators noting that the Israelis have already rejected the position.

As for the rest of the speech, some Arab viewers praised the president for humanizing the uprisings with personal tales of several revolutionaries, including the Tunisian street vendor whose self-immolation was a catalyst for the collective protest movement.

But they noted that he omitted Saudi Arabia in a list of nations that should be working harder for reforms.

His praise of Iraqi efforts to move beyond sectarian and ethnic divisions also struck some as odd on a day when twin bombs killed at least 29 people in the diverse, oil-rich city of Kirkuk.

“Holy cow, the president just pointed toward Iraq as an example to be followed in the region,” wrote Andrew Exum, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, on his popular counterinsurgency blog, Abu Muqawama. “How do other Arabs feel about that? My sense is that the Arabic-speaking world looks at the horrific maelstrom of violence into which Iraq descended in 2004 and thinks, ‘Uh, no thanks.’ ”

Obama used his harshest language to date to condemn brutal crackdowns on protesters in Syria and Bahrain. But he barely mentioned Yemen, home to the most active al-Qaida branch and where a popular revolt against U.S.-allied President Ali Abdullah Saleh is in its fourth bloody month.

“Obama dedicated one sentence to the situation in Yemen,” lamented Adel al-Surabi, a leader in the youth protest movement in Sanaa, the Yemeni capital. “Perhaps this indicates we are not among his main concerns.”

There was also little rejoicing over his offer of a stimulus package for the flagging Egyptian economy, even though Egyptians would agree that the nation’s financial prospects have taken a beating as a result of the 18-day uprising that unseated President Hosni Mubarak in February. The tourism industry collapsed, the real estate market is teetering and local news media have reported extensively on the increasing budget deficit and public debt.

But Egyptians, who for decades have watched the annual $2 billion in U.S. assistance disappear into the regime’s coffers, were immediately skeptical of how any aid money would be used and whether it would make a dent in the astronomical sums required during the country’s protracted recovery period.

“The USAID (aid program) has been running for years and we never felt it and it never influenced our lives directly,” said Abdelmenem Hassany, owner of a tourism company in Cairo. “If we get $2 billion in cash, that’s fine, but is it enough? The last figure estimated by the government just to stabilize the Egyptian economy was $12 billion.”

Added Egyptian artist Shayma Kamel: “There is no unconditional Western support. It always comes with intervention. ... The ex-regime gave up everything just to become an ally and keep the flow of Western support, and I’d never like to see that happen again.”


(McClatchy special correspondents Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem, Mohannad Sabry in Cairo and Adam Baron in Sanaa, Yemen, contributed to this report.)