Abbas in Washington/ Obama in Cairo
Jun 3, 2009 | AIJAC staff
June 3, 2009
Number 06/01 #01
Today’s Update deals with with two separate issues – US President Obama’s meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas last Thursday, and his upcoming address to the Arab and Muslim world from Cairo tomorrow (Thursday).
On the first, a good report on what was said publicly at the Obama-Abbas meeting is here. However, generating much more comment has been an interview which Abbas gave to Jackson Diehl of the Washington Post and we include below Diehl’s report and commentary. In it, Abbas says basically his strategy is to wait – to refuse to negotiate without unilateral Israeli concessions and rely on American pressure on Israel to, according to an aide, eventually bring down the Netanyahu government in “a couple of years”. According to Diehl, it appears Obama “has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud.” The article also contains important revelations about the extent of Israeli concessions made to Abbas under Olmert, as well as Abbas’ concession that at the moment, West Bank Palestinians “have a good reality… the people are living a normal life.” To read this highly important insight into the current thinking of the Palestinian leadership, CLICK HERE. Also commenting on Abbas stance in Washington were The Jerusalem Post, New York Times, Barry Rubin, and Marty Peretz.
Next up, J. Scott Carpenter of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy looks at the context and timing of Obama’s speech in Cairo, and offers a good explanation why Egypt was chosen as the venue. He also predicts the likely themes of the speech and flags the likelihood that anything Obama says about Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking is likely to be rejected as inadequate by the Arab states. Also, he discusses the difficulty Obama is likely to have in addressing the problem of democratisation in the Middle East without either offending or endorsing the policies of his Egyptian hosts. For this valuable look at the speech’s context, CLICK HERE. Some of Carpenter’s Washington Institute colleagues have also written pieces discussing the agendas and potential pitfalls of Obama’s visits to both Egypt and Saudi Arabia, apart from the speech.
Finally, some additional Washington Institute scholars have contributed brief comments to a Washington Post forum on what Obama should say in Cairo (unfortunately, the larger forum does not appear to be currently available on line.) David Makovsky urges Obama to ask the Arab and Muslim states to look inward and take responsibility for contributing towards peace. David Pollock and Curtis Cannon argue that Obama should be realistic about the limited importance to American interests of the US being liked by the region’s peoples. For both these views,
CLICK HERE. Another good piece of advices comes from veteran American foreign affairs columnist Jim Hoagland, who argues that Obama should not imagine or imply that he can deliver peace from on high, when it has to be built from the bottom up. A different (rather fanciful) recommendation comes from columnist Dennis Prager.
Readers may also be interested in:
- Al-Qaeda #2 Ayman al-Zawahiri, himself from Egypt, calls on Egyptians to reject Obama as a “criminal.”
- An Egyptian-born Israeli calls on Obama to provide some home truths about both the other refugees from 1948, and the current state of the Arab Middle East.
- Israel Defence Minister Ehud Barak had a surprise meeting with Obama in Washington yesterday to discuss current tensions over settlements.
- A good story about the sort of “natural growth” Israel wants to allow in the settlement of Modiin Illit.
- Some American congressional leaders, including members of his own party, are expressing scepticism of President Obama’s priorities with regard to pressuring Israeli into a complete settlement freeze.
- Many other comments are appearing both in Israel and abroad about Obama’s current approach, and some good examples are here, here, here, here, here, and here.
- The recent Australian visit of radical Israeli Arab MK Haneen Zuabi is analysed for what she says about the status of Arabs in Israel by academic Andre Oboler. Meanwhile, Israeli Arab rights campaigner Mohammad Darawshe gives a nuanced and largely hopeful account of their situation.
- Following a violent Fatah-Hamas clash in the West Bank, Hamas urges its fighters to fight Fatah as if they were fighting Israel.
- Top Lebanese journalist Michael Young offers his insights into the complexities of Lebanon’s imminent election at the Council on Foreign Relations. Details of the increasingly vituperative campaign between the two sides are described here.
- Israel held its largest ever civil defence drills yesterday to prepare for expected future threats – especially missile and rocket threats.
- Reports of an alleged foiled Hezbollah terror attack on the Israeli Embassy in Azerbaijan. Meanwhile, here’s a story on the increasingly positive Israeli-Azerbaijan relationship.
- May saw the lowest casualties from political violence in Iraq since Feb. 2003. Some reporting on Iraq’s present and speculation on its future comes from the prolific Michael Totten. For those who didn’t see it, Iraqi blogger Omar Fadhil Al-Nidawi has an excellent comment on the Iraqi situation in the Australian yesterday.
By Jackson Diehl
Washington Post, Friday, May 29, 2009
Mahmoud Abbas says there is nothing for him to do.
True, the Palestinian president walked into his meeting with Barack Obama yesterday as the pivotal player in any Middle East peace process. If there is to be a deal, Abbas must (1) agree on all the details of a two-state settlement with the new Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu, which hasn’t yet accepted Palestinian statehood, and (2) somehow overcome the huge split in Palestinian governance between his Fatah movement, which controls the West Bank, and Hamas, which rules Gaza and hasn’t yet accepted Israel’s right to exist.
Yet on Wednesday afternoon, as he prepared for the White House meeting in a suite at the Ritz-Carlton in Pentagon City, Abbas insisted that his only role was to wait. He will wait for Hamas to capitulate to his demand that any Palestinian unity government recognize Israel and swear off violence. And he will wait for the Obama administration to force a recalcitrant Netanyahu to freeze Israeli settlement construction and publicly accept the two-state formula.
Until Israel meets his demands, the Palestinian president says, he will refuse to begin negotiations. He won’t even agree to help Obama’s envoy, George J. Mitchell, persuade Arab states to take small confidence-building measures. “We can’t talk to the Arabs until Israel agrees to freeze settlements and recognize the two-state solution,” he insisted in an interview. “Until then we can’t talk to anyone.”
For veterans of Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, Abbas’s bargaining position will be bone-wearyingly familiar: Both sides invariably begin by arguing that they cannot act until the other side offers far-reaching concessions. Netanyahu suggested during his own visit to Washington last week that the Palestinians should start by recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, though he didn’t make it a precondition for meeting with Abbas.
What’s interesting about Abbas’s hardline position, however, is what it says about the message that Obama’s first Middle East steps have sent to Palestinians and Arab governments. From its first days the Bush administration made it clear that the onus for change in the Middle East was on the Palestinians: Until they put an end to terrorism, established a democratic government and accepted the basic parameters for a settlement, the United States was not going to expect major concessions from Israel.
Obama, in contrast, has repeatedly and publicly stressed the need for a West Bank settlement freeze, with no exceptions. In so doing he has shifted the focus to Israel. He has revived a long-dormant Palestinian fantasy: that the United States will simply force Israel to make critical concessions, whether or not its democratic government agrees, while Arabs passively watch and applaud. “The Americans are the leaders of the world,” Abbas told me and Post Editorial Page Editor Fred Hiatt. “They can use their weight with anyone around the world. Two years ago they used their weight on us. Now they should tell the Israelis, ‘You have to comply with the conditions.’ ”
It’s true, of course, that if Obama is to broker a Middle East settlement he will have to overcome the recalcitrance of Netanyahu and his Likud party, which has not yet reconciled itself to the idea that Israel will have to give up most of the West Bank and evacuate tens of thousands of settlers. But Palestinians remain a long way from swallowing reality as well. Setting aside Hamas and its insistence that Israel must be liquidated, Abbas — usually described as the most moderate of Palestinian leaders — last year helped doom Netanyahu’s predecessor, Ehud Olmert, by rejecting a generous outline for Palestinian statehood.
In our meeting Wednesday, Abbas acknowledged that Olmert had shown him a map proposing a Palestinian state on 97 percent of the West Bank — though he complained that the Israeli leader refused to give him a copy of the plan. He confirmed that Olmert “accepted the principle” of the “right of return” of Palestinian refugees — something no previous Israeli prime minister had done — and offered to resettle thousands in Israel. In all, Olmert’s peace offer was more generous to the Palestinians than either that of Bush or Bill Clinton; it’s almost impossible to imagine Obama, or any Israeli government, going further.
Abbas turned it down. “The gaps were wide,” he said.
Abbas and his team fully expect that Netanyahu will never agree to the full settlement freeze — if he did, his center-right coalition would almost certainly collapse. So they plan to sit back and watch while U.S. pressure slowly squeezes the Israeli prime minister from office. “It will take a couple of years,” one official breezily predicted. Abbas rejects the notion that he should make any comparable concession — such as recognizing Israel as a Jewish state, which would imply renunciation of any large-scale resettlement of refugees.
Instead, he says, he will remain passive. “I will wait for Hamas to accept international commitments. I will wait for Israel to freeze settlements,” he said. “Until then, in the West Bank we have a good reality . . . the people are living a normal life.” In the Obama administration, so far, it’s easy being Palestinian.
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J. Scott Carpenter
May 29, 2009
On June 4, President Barack Obama will give a seminal speech in Egypt that will define not only his approach to the “Muslim world” but also his administration’s aspirations for ending the Arab-Israeli conflict and bringing Iran in from the cold. Until now, he and his administration have been engaged in behind-the-scenes diplomacy designed to shape the environment for an integrated strategy toward the Middle East. Although the speech will give Americans and the international community the first real indication of what the president actually plans to do, raised expectations in the region and at home will be difficult to meet, and the risks from negative effects from what he will (and will not) say are real.
Early in his presidential campaign, Obama promised he would give a major speech to the “Muslim world” within his first hundred days in office. In January, to provide a down payment on the promised speech and to demonstrate his seriousness, he granted his first major television interview to the pan-Arab satellite station al-Arabiya, in which he sent a clear signal that both the tone and direction of U.S. policy toward the region would change.
During the interview, the president said that he would close the detention center at Guantanamo Bay and would soon announce the drawdown of U.S. troops from Iraq. Obama emphasized his commitment to relaunching the Israeli-Palestinian peace process when he said, “The most important thing is for the United States to get engaged right away.” He also reiterated his promise to reach out to Syria and Iran, stating, “It is impossible for us to think only in terms of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. . . . These things are interrelated.”
The next stop along the road to Egypt was in Turkey, on April 6, when the president delivered his first speech in a Muslim-majority country. Speaking before the Turkish parliament, Obama again touched on the need to advance peace, engage Iran, and “seek broader engagement” with the “Muslim world.” Toward the end of the speech, he made clear that the United States “is not and never will be at war with Islam.”
So Why Now?
For many, the speech in Turkey checked the “Muslim-world-speech” box, but in a March 27 press briefing, the administration made clear that this was not the case. That speech would come later, and the United States would use the additional time to make progress on diplomatic efforts with Syria, Iran, and the peace process. As the president noted on al-Arabiya, “Ultimately, people are going to judge me not by my words but by my actions.”
The interview and speech in Turkey created space for largely behind-the-scenes diplomacy, indicated by a flurry of high-level visits to Washington and emerging news reports that hint at likely policy directions. It has been reported that administration officials have sought critical changes to the Arab Peace Initiative that would make it more palatable to Israel and have urged Arab states to take important steps toward normalizing relations with Israel. On May 5, Tony Blair told the Associated Press that the U.S.-led Middle East Quartet (comprising the United States, the European Union, Russia, and the UN) would be coming forward with a comprehensive new strategy in “five to six weeks.”
During this time, the administration has provided few public indications of its ultimate policy directions, with neither U.S. special Middle East envoy George Mitchell nor the special advisor for the Gulf and Southwest Asia, Dennis Ross, giving public interviews on their respective agendas. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself, apart from congressional testimony, has not discussed these issues publicly or appeared on a single Sunday morning news program.
Clearly, the president now believes his actions and rhetoric have simmered sufficiently to allow for a more dramatic unveiling of his policies toward the region.
What He Is Likely to Say
Given the timing, venue, and geopolitical importance of the speech, President Obama is likely to speak primarily about what he believes the “Muslim world” cares most deeply about: America’s effort to bring peace to the region. He believes that if he can convince Muslims, specifically Arab Muslims, of his commitment to ending the Arab-Israeli conflict, he can successfully undercut the appeal of rejectionist powers like Iran and Syria and bolster the legitimacy of “moderate states” such as Jordan, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia. Speaking just days ahead of Lebanon’s parliamentary elections and two weeks before Iran’s presidential elections, he may also hope to influence voters to choose more moderate leaderships that will partner with the West in this endeavor.
This can be the only reason why the administration chose Egypt as the venue. Egypt was the first Arab state to make peace with Israel and has recently been standing up to Hizballah and working to forge a coalition of moderate states to resist Iranian assertiveness. By traveling to Egypt, the president hopes to demonstrate U.S. confidence and support for President Hosni Mubarak’s new proactivity and pay tribute to Egypt’s past greatness.
And yet, even as it tries to reform itself economically, Egypt remains a lethargic power where the vast majority of the population subsists on less than a dollar a day. Led by an octogenarian who has been in power since Anwar Sadat’s assassination in 1981, Egypt persists as an authoritarian regime lacking any truly democratic institutions, making this speech Obama’s first delivered in a nondemocracy. This latter fact perhaps explains why White House spokesperson Robert Gibbs emphasized that the speech’s scope was “bigger than where the speech was going to be given or who is the leadership of the country,” during the press briefing announcing it.
This attempt at evasion, however, fails to fully address the downside of the choice of venue. There is no way for the president to travel to Egypt without providing implicit support for the Mubarak regime. Although it is true that Egypt’s courts threw out Saad Eddin Ibrahim’s conviction for treason and earlier released Ayman Nour from prison, these moves are widely perceived as gifts to the administration to sidestep criticism from members of Congress who are familiar with these two prominent Egyptian dissidents. In the meantime, the regime continues its ongoing crackdown on students, bloggers, journalists, and political activists of all stripes.
In her 2005 Cairo speech, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told students at the American University that “for sixty years, the United States pursued stability at the expense of democracy in the Middle East — and we achieved neither. Now we are taking a different course.” Unless he finds a way to indicate otherwise, Obama’s speech risks signaling that the brief dalliance with this policy is now officially over. This return to the status quo ante in the name of “realism” would fulfill the greatest hopes of the region’s oppressive regimes. To avoid this, the president, without lecturing, must include a challenge to Egypt and governments across the region to create more open, democratic, and therefore, resilient societies. Insisting that Middle East governments do more to protect their citizens’ civil and political rights will put him squarely on the side of the people.
The president should also use the Egypt speech to drop the phrase “Muslim world” from his public rhetoric. This unhelpful abstraction belies the rich diversity of Muslim communities around the world and emphasizes the narrative of al-Qaeda and other Islamist groups that aim to unite the Muslim world in a new Caliphate under sharia (Islamic law). The United States is part of the international community of nation states, and Obama, much as he did in Turkey, should speak to the peoples of the region as citizens of their respective nations rather than as members of the “Muslim world.”
Obama’s Egypt speech represents a watershed moment both for the president and his approach toward the region. Believing as he does that sincere efforts at peacemaking remain key to reconciling America with the “Muslim world,” he must now make a case for his intended actions. Unfortunately, experience indicates that whatever he proposes will fall short of expectations. For many in the region, only a promise that the United States will strong-arm Israel on settlements will prove American seriousness, and even then, skepticism will remain high. As one Jordanian columnist recently put it: “The sole bridge toward reconciliation is a Palestinian state.”
In the meantime, by traveling to Cairo, Obama risks signaling a return to the era when the United States ignored human rights and democracy as an element of national security. Moreover, should Obama fail to deliver peace on their terms, the same undemocratic Arab regimes will blame him for the failure, providing Iran and others another stick with which to beat the United States for being on the wrong side of history. By seeking peace at the expense of democracy and long-term stability, the president risks achieving none of these regional objectives.
J. Scott Carpenter is the Keston Family fellow at The Washington Institute and director of its Project Fikra, an initiative to empower mainstream Muslims in their struggles with Islamist extremists.
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The Washington Post
May 31, 2009
I hope President Obama asks Arab and Muslim societies to look inward.
Candor requires acknowledging that too many Arab states have exploited the Arab-Israeli conflict for domestic purposes. These regimes have used the conflict to deflect criticism of their failings on domestic issues — failings that could threaten their grasp on power. Too often Arab leaders justify the lack of political or economic reform by citing their preoccupation with the Arab-Israeli conflict. By so doing, they make others responsible for the solutions. Taken together, instead of producing a culture of responsibility, as President Obama has called for at home, they perpetuate a culture of victimhood.
Arab states need to do their share to end the Arab-Israeli conflict. Although some Arabs say they need to deal with Israel because it is a fact, they never say they should do so because Israel is a legitimate state. If the Arab world wants the United States to become more engaged in Arab-Israeli peacemaking, it needs to do more than present a back-loaded Arab Peace Initiative. I hope Obama says to them: every step that Israel takes toward the Palestinians must be met with an Arab step to integrate Israel into the Middle East.
David Pollock and Curtis Cannon
President Obama’s speech is being heralded as another harbinger of improved relations between the United States and the “Arab world.” Indeed, according to the handful of polls available around the region, America’s overall approval rating in various Arab countries plummeted to the teens during the Bush administration. By contrast, in recent Zogby and IPSOS polls, half or more in Morocco, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (but not in Egypt or Lebanon) agreed that “the Obama administration will bring positive change to U.S.-Arab relations.” But does this matter?
In spite of what the Arab polls say, the United States has not been nearly as negatively affected by its poor image as is commonly supposed. Since 2003, the number of protests with any reported anti-American slant has slowed to a trickle. The number of Arab citizens granted visas to visit the United States has been steadily increasing since 2003. U.S. exports to Arab countries have boomed, from $16.3 billion in 2000 to $51.8 billion in 2008. And Arab governments have been increasingly cooperative with the United States over the past five years.
It would be nice if more Arabs liked the United States. But as Obama drafts his speech, he should be mindful that, of the two pillars for U.S.-Muslim relations proposed in his speeches so far, the record demonstrates that “mutual interests” clearly matter much more than “mutual respect.”