Obama's main man in the Middle East?

Only 39 percent of the American public consider Mubarak's Egypt a US ally, according to a recent poll.

mubarak obama 248.88 (photo credit: AP)
mubarak obama 248.88
(photo credit: AP)
US President Barack Obama's Middle Eastern strategy isn't working, but his meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday was unlikely to help him understand why and what was needed to be done to achieve better results. Obama and Mubarak designed the visit to demonstrate the central place Egypt currently occupies in the US's strategy. Obama delivered his address to the Muslim world in Cairo in June and has already met Mubarak three times since taking office. Mubarak shares many of Obama's convictions and assumptions about the conditions needed to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet, while Obama has called upon the pro-American Arab states, including Egypt, to adopt new confidence-building measures towards Israel such as allowing Israeli airlines to fly over their territories, establishing semi-diplomatic and commercial offices and opening their borders for tourists, Mubarak said that these measure would come only after Israel signs peace agreements with all of its Arab neighbors. IF THE Arab states don't offer any reciprocal gestures and concessions, Obama's continuing insistence on a settlement freeze will be seen as excessive, one-sided and unfounded. Obama's Cairo speech and his obsession with the settlements issue to the point of exclusion of all other obstacles to Israeli-Palestinian conflict resolution, led the Arabs to believe that they don't have to contribute anything to the process and that the US will do all the work for them. Israelis in turn believe that either Obama doesn't understand Middle Eastern politics or that he is seeking a highly-visible confrontation with Israel in order to improve America's image in the Muslim world. Mubarak carefully rescheduled his visit to Washington in mid-August when Congress is in recess. He probably wanted to avoid sensitive questions about the internal conditions in Egypt, primarily the succession issue and human rights. Mubarak has ruled Egypt since 1981 and his health is poor. No less than five American presidents have served in the White House during his term. His son, Gamal, is expected to succeed him and this why he was a prominent member of the Egyptian delegation to Washington. The purpose was to reassure the US about stability and policy continuity in post-Mubarak Egypt. Yet, there is substantial opposition to family succession and to Gamal. The two presidents emphasized the need to resolve the Arab-Palestinian-Israeli conflict in the next two years as Obama is looking for a major success in foreign policy to ensure his reelection in 2012. But this timetable fits the clock of American politics, not the clock of Middle Eastern realities. The two presidents however, conveniently ignored one of the most serious obstacles to resolving the conflict: Hamas. The challenge is how to ensure that a Palestinian state in the West Bank will not be ruled by an Iranian extremist and fundamentalist terror proxy. Their solution: a Fatah-Hamas national unity government. They probably assume that such a government would be dominated by Fatah, but the reality is likely to be the exact opposite. SOURCES THAT Obama needs to consult about his strategy are right in his backyard: public opinion and congress. American public opinion doesn't support Obama's promotion of Egypt as the key US ally in the Middle East, and Mubarak's visit in Washington is unlikely to alter this view. A poll taken by the renown Rasmussen organization between August 5 and 8 found that only 39 percent of the American public consider Egypt a US ally while nine percent view this state as an enemy. For the other 42%, Egypt falls somewhere in between. In striking contrast, 70% of the respondents consider Israel a US ally. Only a fourth of the public believes that US relations with the Arab world will improve in the next year, and 81% agree with Netanyahu that the Palestinians must recognize Israel as part of a peace agreement. Seventy one senators politely wrote Obama on August 10 that he needs to better balance his strategy: they disagreed with his one-sided pressure on Israel, they praised the Netanyahu government for taking positive steps towards peace, and told Obama to obtain similar concessions from the Arab states. Obama has been praising Mubarak but the Egyptian president will have to work much harder to gain credibility and support both in Israel and with the American public. Obama's intention to formulate and announce yet another American blue print for Arab-Israeli peace would be better served if he listened to American public opinion and to what seventy one senators wrote him just a few weeks ago. While Mubarak and the officials are reinforcing Obama's failing outlook, the senators, including the most influential from his own party, advised him to rethink and revise his approach. The writer is professor of Political Studies and Communication and senior research associate specializing in US-Israeli relations at the BESA Center for Strategic Studies at Bar-Ilan University.