News Features

Walking the talk in the Middle East

By Thanapathi
President Barack Obama didn’t waste too much time to deliver on his inauguration day speech promise to initiate a better dialogue with the Muslim World. During his first week in office, it has been made abundantly clear that a Middle East peace deal would be the cornerstone of his foreign policy.

A leader among equals

In a gesture of goodwill and as a symbol of the changed attitude towards the region, Obama gave one of his first interviews since taking office, to Al Arabia satellite television network, a Dubai based news organisation widely viewed in the Arab world. “The US has a stake in the wellbeing of the Muslim world,” said Obama, “and the language we use has to be a language of respect. We are going to follow through on many of my commitments to do a more effective job of reaching out, listening, as well as speaking to the Muslim world.”

Rabid support

This is indeed a stark contrast to the attitude of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obsessed with his fundamentalist evangelical beliefs, Bush was an unwavering supporter of Israel, endorsing each and every action taken by the Jewish state in the name of its security. Whether it be invading Southern Lebanon in the name of fighting Hezbollah and killing well over 600 civilians or, the recent Gaza incursion that killed over 1,100 civilians, Israel had a freehand to execute its will without international sanction or pressure, due to the support of the US. In the process, the Americans lost their credibility among the Arabs, as a biased but yet, viable peace broker. The peace process that had been crawling for years, ground to a complete halt and, in more ways than one, the US may have done more harm to Israel than good. By becoming a party to the conflict on the side of Israel, rather than a possible facilitator, the US has shattered its credibility in the region.

US-backed Israeli hegemony

It cannot be a coincidence, that Israel launched its deadly campaign against Gaza just three weeks before the inauguration of President Obama, and ceased hostilities a couple of days before he took office. It was, in fact, seen as the last parting gift from Bush to Israel. For the last time, Israel was given the opportunity to take unilateral action, without thought of sanction or responsibility. It is now learned that, Israel even wanted the Bush Administration to give the green light for a pre-emptive strike on Iran, targeting its nuclear facilities. Though a similar strike was authorised on Syria earlier last year, the US seems not to have wanted another unresolved war to be added to Iraq and Afghanistan, before the transition of its Presidents.

Middle East in perspective

From the looks of things, at least going by the rhetoric, President Obama has taken a completely different approach to the region. He has already taken measures to rebuild the lost credibility of his country. Obama would look back in time, to the days when the US was powerbroker in the region, with clout and respect among all the players, to guide them in the path of peace. It was, after all, the US that brokered the Camp David peace accord between Israel and Egypt, under President Carter, and President Clinton who spearheaded the Oslo peace process. Clinton may not have achieved a lasting peace between Israel and the Palestinians but at least, that process ended the hostility between Israel and Jordan, two countries which have technically been at war since 1967. Whether President Obama can write the rest of the chapter in this long drawn out peace process, and bring about a final lasting solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, is a matter left for time to decide. He, however, has shown that he’s determined to address the issue as a priority. This week, Obama named George J. Mitchell as his special envoy to the Middle East. Mitchell has already undertaken a visit to the region, and met with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert and other officials, as well as the Palestinian Authority president and prime minister in the West Bank. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton, at her Senate confirmation hearings, said that, Middle East peace was a priority of hers and the Obama administration.

Iran card to exit Iraq

President Obama also showed a divergence in policy from his predecessor, on the issue of Iran. In his interview to Al Arabia, Obama said it was important for the US “to be willing to talk to Iran, to express very clearly where our differences are, but where there are potential avenues for progress”, he said that, the US needs to use “all the tools of US power, including diplomacy, in our relationship with Iran.” Though Iran’s nuclear ambitions have been a headache to the US, it has also been accepted that the engagement of the Islamist Republic is a necessity, considering its influence on its neighbour Iraq. Even though President Bush has been maintaining a tough stance on Iran, it was acknowledged that Iran has the ability to destabilise Iraq through its influence with the Shi’a majority that now exerts power in that country. Having stated that, he would focus the fight against terrorism back to Afghanistan, President Obama would look at exiting Iraq without plunging the country into further chaos. To do so, the Iran factor has to be taken into consideration. A diplomatic engagement with Iran, therefore, is in the interests of all concerned, rather than creating more military conflicts in the region.

Israel-Palestine conflict root cause of ME turmoil

It is a long held view that, much of the current turmoil in the world stems from the unrest in the Middle East. Whether it is Iran, Hezbollah, Syria, Hamas or the average Arab on the street with his share of grievances, many would point to the Israel-Palestine conflict as to the root cause of the problem. For decades, world leaders have been trying to douse this inferno, in a manner which is acceptable to all parties to the conflict. Due to its unwavering support for Israel and the influence it has over other Arab nations, the United States has long been considered the key player in the conflict, which has the ability to bring about a lasting solution through its influence. If successful, Barack Obama would definitely be assured of his place in history.