Arab faith in Obama fading

Skepticism about Washington's hard line towards J'lem undermines front against Iran.

March 17, 2010 21:47
3 minute read.
US President Barack Obama

obama 311.187. (photo credit: AP)

BEIRUT — Arabs across the Middle East are unconvinced the United States will stand up to Israel despite Washington's current public outrage over plans to build new Jewish homes in a northern area of Jerusalem beyond the green line.

The skepticism is eroding Arab hopes that President Barack Obama will push hard for a long-sought peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians to end a conflict that has troubled US-Arab relations. America's dwindling credibility could also jeopardize another major Mideast goal — uniting the Arab world against Iran.

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Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said Arab countries will be less likely to engage with the US on issues such as Iran if they get nothing in return.

The United States has been working for more than a year to get Israel and the Palestinians negotiating again, and Washington strongly criticized Israel's plans, announced last week, to build 1,600 apartments in disputed east Jerusalem.

On Saturday, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the announcement an insult. US envoy George Mitchell, who had hoped to wrap up preparations for relaunching Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, called off a visit to the region.

But Clinton was quick to soften her tone, saying there is "a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel and between the American and Israeli people."

Such rhetoric fuels Arab doubts that Washington will press its ally to make concessions widely seen as necessary for any final peace deal with the Palestinians.

During a speech in Cairo in June, Obama called for a complete settlement freeze and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. But Arabs were disillusioned when his administration appeared to back down and accepted a partial 10-month freeze called by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late last year.

Jordanian political analyst Oreib Rentawi said Wednesday that Arabs do not believe there is true disagreement between the United States and its longtime ally, Israel. "Arabs consider what is taking place now as a summer cloud or a storm in a tea cup," AP quoted Rentawi as saying. In Egypt, a column in the Al-Gomhuria newspaper expressed doubt that Israel would face any repercussions for its actions.

Obama did get some vocal support from the Arab League. In Beirut, the group's secretary general, Amr Moussa, said Arabs should praise the US president. "The man has in fact said the right things and tried hard," Moussa said.

US allies Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations have rejected US pressure to make diplomatic gestures to Israel to encourage it in the peace process, citing its hard line on settlements.

The mistrust of the US could bleed over into other realms, such as the attempt to isolate Iran.

Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia is a central player in Washington's efforts to build a front against Iran. In recent months, the kingdom has taken a tougher, more vocal tone against Teheran, reflecting its own fears over a possible Iranian nuclear program and over mainly Shiite and non-Arab Iran's spreading influence in the Mideast and support for militant groups.

But Saudi Arabia may grow more reluctant to play such a public role if resentment over the United States grows because of peace process failures.

The latest tumult over Israel is not the first time Obama's overtures in the Arab world have fallen flat. Last month, Syrian President Bashar Assad rejected US calls to loosen his longtime alliance with Iran, even as Washington named the first US ambassador to Damascus since 2005 and sent top diplomats to meet with Assad.

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