Palestinian Affairs: Our man in Washington?

The one thing Fatah and Hamas seem to agree on is that Obama is good for the Arab and Muslim world.

Hamas watch Obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
Hamas watch Obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
'For the first time, we feel we have a friend in the White House." This is what a Palestinian Authority official in Ramallah had to say this week, after listening to US President Barack Obama's address to Arabs and Muslims from Cairo. The official's sentiments reflected those of many Palestinians who are beginning to talk about a "new era" in relations between the Arabs and the US under the Obama administration. Words of praise for an American president are extremely rare in the Arab world. But Obama appears to be headed toward making history by becoming the first US president in modern history who is not being accused of bias toward Israel, and who is being hailed for his "balanced" approach to the Israeli-Arab conflict. For some Palestinians, Obama may even turn out to be better than most of the Arab and Muslim leaders. As one woman in Ramallah put it, "When I heard Obama speaking [from Cairo], I felt as if I were listening to the head of an Arab or Islamic state. He's really a great man." Like many in the Arab and Islamic world, the Palestinians are fond of Obama, first and foremost, because he's not George W. Bush. As far as they were concerned, Bush was more pro-Israel than many Israelis, and that's why he was reviled by most Arabs and Muslims. "After eight years of Bush, anyone would be better received," said As'ad Abu al-Hayat, a physician from Hebron. "Obama speaks in a different language, and is obviously more respectful of Islam and Muslims." Obama has apparently also won the hearts and minds of some Islamic fundamentalist groups. Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal heaped praise on him, because he had refrained from calling "resistance attacks" against Israel "terrorism." "Obama is talking in a new language, one that is different from the voice we used to hear from the previous US administration," Mashaal said in an interview with the Palestinian daily Al-Kuds. "Obama avoided branding our resistance operations terrorism, but he made a mistake when he compared the situation of the Palestinians to that of blacks in America." Hamas prime minister Ismail Haniyeh also went on the record praising Obama's "even-handed" approach. He said he was especially encouraged by the US administration's position vis-à-vis settlement construction, the two-state solution and the continued blockade of the Gaza Strip. According to sources close to Hamas, the Egyptians this week told Mashaal that the Obama administration would exert pressure on Israel to lift the blockade and launch indirect talks with Hamas, if the Islamic movement agreed to a long-term cease-fire, and ended its power struggle with the rival Fatah faction. Mashaal, the sources added, was told by the Egyptians that calm in the Gaza Strip would make it easier for the Obama administration to put pressure on the government of Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu to make far-reaching concessions. Mashaal is reported to have expressed his movement's readiness to pursue reconciliation talks with Fatah and maintain the relative calm in Gaza. THE PA, too, wants to facilitate Obama's mission. The recent escalation in anti-Hamas raids by its security forces in the West Bank is aimed at showing Obama that Fatah is serious about fulfilling its obligations under the road map, particularly with regard to fighting terrorism. The anti-Hamas offensive - which resulted in the killing of four top Hamas militiamen in Kalkilya - coincided with Obama's address, and came on the eve of a visit to Ramallah by US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell. PA President Mahmoud Abbas and Prime Minister Salaam Fayad, who met separately with Mitchell, are said to have heard words of praise for their recent measures against Hamas in the West Bank. Under the Bush administration, the PA was under tremendous pressure to fight terrorism, end financial corruption and establish proper governing institutions. But now there is a sigh of relief among senior PA officials in Ramallah because, they say, they are no longer facing the same pressure as before. The Obama administration knows that the ball is actually in the Israeli court and not the Palestinian court, remarked one of Abbas's aides after this week's meeting with Mitchell. "The Americans now understand that it's Netanyahu who's the obstacle to peace," he added. "Netanyahu's refusal to accept the two-state solution and his insistence on building in the settlements are the major threats to peace. We Palestinians, on the other hand, remain committed to the peace process, the two-state solution and to fulfilling all our obligations under the road map." FATAH AND Hamas appear to differ on almost everything - except when it comes to Obama. Both parties are pinning high hopes on the new American administration. Hamas is desperate to end the state of isolation it has been in since the movement came to power in 2006. It feels there is a good chance that the Obama administration, through its conciliatory approach toward radical Muslims and Arabs, would assist it in winning recognition and legitimacy in the international arena. So far, the messages that Hamas has been receiving from Washington - through the Egyptians, Saudis and Qataris - are, as far as Mashaal and Haniyeh are concerned, very positive and encouraging. Similarly, the PA leadership in the West Bank has every reason to be satisfied with the apparent shift in US policy on the Middle East. Some PA officials emerged from this week's talks with Mitchell with big smiles on their faces. The Obama administration, one of them boasted, has almost entirely endorsed the Palestinian stance on major issues like settlements, the two-state solution and Jerusalem. A number of officials in Ramallah predicted that the looming crisis between the Obama administration and Netanyahu would either force Israel to make radical changes in its policies or bring down the new right-wing coalition. The feeling among many officials in the Mukata presidential compound is that Netanyahu has no choice but to succumb to the American pressure or face new elections - in which case, they say, they would prefer to see Tzipi Livni and Kadima in power. "For now, Obama is our man in Washington," commented one official. "But if he fails to follow up on his nice statements with deeds on the ground, we and the rest of the Arabs and Muslims will turn against him very quickly."