June 7, 2012 | Quote
In Attempt to Garner Votes, Obama is Ignoring the Palestinians
Tuesday evening, it seemed like deja vu, when U.S. President Obama “dropped by” a meeting at the White House between his chief of staff, Jacob Lew, and a group of Orthodox Jewish leaders. Obama “dropped by” a similar meeting last week, between Lew and a group of Conservative Jewish leaders. Of course, both of these “surprise visits” were planned in advance, and this week's group was aware enough that it was coming to bring a present to the president: a framed reproduction of President George Washington's letter to the Jewish community of Newport, Rhode Island – the historic, first exchange between Jewish leaders and an American president.
Unsurprisingly, one of the guests asked Mr. Obama about his attitude toward Israel. Rabbi Shmuel Goldin, president of the Rabbinical Council of America, wondered what lessons the President has learned from the events related to the Israeli-Palestinian peace process.
The lesson he's learned, Obama said, is that the process is really difficult, and there are many possibilities for misunderstanding. And then came his long explanation of the misunderstanding caused by his administration's position on settlements, which wasn't different from any of his predecessors. Obama explained again the difference between the left-center U.S. government and the right-center Israeli government. He assured his guests that on a personal level he gets along well with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but added that like any other leader, Netanyahu, doesn't want any restraints imposed upon him. He doesn't want to appear weak, or like he's succumbing to American pressure. There is no justification, Obama insisted, for Israel's feeling “lonely, pressured and pushed back.” Compromise is required from both sides, but his administration was decidedly more attentive to Israel than to the Palestinians, and stresses Israel's security needs.
Obama was cautiously pessimistic about the prospects of peace under current circumstances. He somberly noted, in fact, that the window of opportunity for making peace might be closed already, because Palestinian positions have “deteriorated.” But he vowed, “We'll keep trying.”
When all was said and done, Obama hinted to the Jewish leaders that the Palestinians are unwilling to make peace, that his administration believes that Israeli security is more important than evenhandedness.
Does this mean that in this election year, the U.S. President is throwing the Palestinians under the bus?
One thing is certain – in the past two weeks, there weren't many meetings between White House officials and Palestinian or Arab-American delegations that were crashed by the president.
Hussein Ibish, a senior research fellow at the American Task Force on Palestine, doesn't think Obama has lost faith in the Palestinian Authority. “The Obama Administration recently got the remaining U.S. aid for 2011 released [to the PA] despite congressional blocks, so clearly they have not 'given up' on the PA or the Palestinians,” he told Haaretz. “Since we are in the midst of an election year that is mainly focused on the domestic economy, there is little appetite for major foreign policy initiatives in the administration … on a whole range of issues, including the peace process.”
The PLO mission decided to withhold reactions until Obama's remarks are clarified with the State Department.
Three-plus years in the White House have given the public more than enough time to reach some conclusions about President Obama's Mideast policy. Fawaz Gerges, the Middle East expert from the London School of Economics and Political Science, does precisely that in his new book, “Obama and the Middle East: The End of America's Moment?” Gerges predicts and depicts the demise of America's influence throughout the world. It's hardly a new idea, and the Arabs' disappointment with Obama's failure to redefine U.S. relations with the Arab world is consistently reflected in surveys. (It's interesting to note that Russia's position in the Middle East seems to be deteriorating even quicker. )
What Gerges does bring to the table is his claim that while Obama did not transform foreign policy, he did correct his predecessor's approach to the Middle East. On the other hand, the author also criticizes Obama for his dealings with Iran, for failing to back the Greens in the summer of 2009, for intensifying the drones war, for dealing with the Palestinian-Israeli peace process, and even for focusing too much attention on the danger posed by Al-Qaeda – which is struggling to survive. (This last argument seems flawed, though, because the terrorist group does not necessarily need more than a couple of hundred devoted members to inflict serious damage. )
During the past year, several top U.S. administration officials that were responsible for Middle East policy have left the White House and the State Department. The latest, Jeffrey Feltman, left last week, reportedly for a job at the UN. Feltman was assistant secretary of state for Near Eastern affairs, a veteran diplomat who spoke fluent Arabic and had a deep knowledge of the Middle East. He was on the diplomatic frontline for the U.S. administration, trying to deal with the Arab Spring.
It seems that those officials who have remained are taking a “wait and see” approach to the Middle East. Caution is the name of the game. Even in the case of Syria, while many expressed outrage at Assad's atrocities, it did not necessarily translate into action. They seem to be toning down their rhetoric regarding Iran as well. On Sunday, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reacted quite calmly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamenei's statement threatening “lightning” retaliation against Israel if Iran's nuclear facilities are attacked. In Stockholm, Clinton merely said that she “long ago separated the words from the actions when dealing with regimes across the globe. Many, many countries and their leaders say a lot of things for domestic purposes, to lay down markers, to make their views clear to different audiences. But you negotiate with the very hard work that our diplomats are doing. And we look forward to seeing what the Iranians actually bring to the table in Moscow.”
Amid this turmoil, it's probably good news for Israel that our neighbors don't seem to be paying us much attention. The Washington-based Foundation for Defense of Democracies has published a new report, called “Facebook fatwa: Saudi clerics, Wahhabi Islam and Social Media,” which offers an interesting perspective on the Arab world's current mindset. The report analyzes the growing presence of Saudi clerics on social media sites, and looked at what they and their followers write about. These clerics have been disseminating messages to millions on Facebook and Twitter.
One of the study's authors, Jonathan Schanzer, points out that the clerics still refer to Jews as “sons of monkeys and pigs” in their messages, but that the Jewish people are not the main focus of these clerics. “There is definitely self-policing,” Schanzer says. “Clerics are worrying not to say something too radical. They know that with the current Saudi government's approach they can't call for jihad anymore, but you can still call Jews pigs.”
Michael Doran, a security specialist at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy, says an analysis of tens of thousands of posts has shown that “the center of gravity is Egypt; it's exciting people more than anything else. The big question throughout the Arab world now is the relation between state and society.” Still, he says some people do care about Israel and support violence against it. “It's an ongoing concern. Just because Islamists argue with each other it doesn't necessarily mean its good for Jews.”
One possible positive result of the Muslim clerics' expanding participation on social media sites is that they are now acutely aware of what is being said about them. In fact, one commented on his Facebook page about the survey shortly after it was published.
A point of concern, however, is that more people living outside of the Middle East seem to be gaining interest in militant activities. For example, 16 percent of overall English conversations looked at in the study were about jihad; only 1 percent of Arabic talk was focused on that topic.
Israeli President Shimon Peres, who will be receiving his Medal of Freedom from President Obama at the White House next week, has often promised that the Internet will help usher in a new era to the Middle East. The “Facebook fatwa” study shows that his prediction may have been correct, but not in the way he intended. Cyberspace may be seen as a useful arena for iPad-addicted ultra-conservative clerics who apparently see no contradiction between using the Internet and preaching against its negative influence. While entries that explicitly endorsed violence were marginal, there also was little interest in issues such as the economy (it took up 1 percent of the overall content in English and 4 percent of the content in Arabic ). Unfortunately, posts warning that allowing women to drive will lead to a “surge in prostitution, pornography, homosexuality and divorce” seem to be far more popular.