Arabs Believe Obama is Powerless in the Middle East

06/04/2010 02:20 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The unprecedented enthusiasm in the Arab and Muslim World which greeted Barack Obama's election win nearly 20 months ago has been replaced with disappointment and anger.

Millions of Arabs and Muslims applauded when Barack Obama addressed the Muslim World in Cairo on June 4 last year, and cheered him when he said "America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own".

They found hope in his call for a halt to illegal Israeli settlements, and many believed that the so-called Middle East peace process would be put back on track.

Reacting to the speech on June 4, 2009, Amr Moussa, the head of the Arab League, said:

I feel that the speech was balanced and offered a new vision of rapprochement regarding relations with Islamic states. [His speech shows that the US] will deal with the region's issues with a sense of balance. This includes the Palestinian question, the end to Israeli settlements, Palestinian rights, which must be respected.

In the Occupied West Bank, where Palestinians were desperately hoping for a new Middle East initiative following the Bush administration's misdirected Road Map, Nabil Abu Rdeneh, a spokesman for Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, said that Obama's speech implied "the beginning of a new American policy and this policy is creating a new atmosphere to build the Palestinian state."

What a difference a year makes; any credibility Obama may have had as an impartial peace-broker has been trashed.

The first jolt came in July 2009 when US officials were unable to prevent Israeli authorities in East Jerusalem from converting a Palestinian hotel in the district of Sheikh Jarrah into 20 Jewish apartments and an underground garage. The Palestinians refused to meet with the Israelis unless illegal settlements and evictions were halted.

Obama dispatched special Middle East envoy George Mitchell to secure a commitment from the Israelis to halt the construction of settlements but he returned empty-handed. Israeli authorities continued evicting Palestinians from East Jerusalem as they paved the way for a plan to construct 350 new housing units for Israelis.

When Israel announced the construction of hundreds of additional housing units for Jews in the Occupied West Bank, the White House issued a statement saying such actions were regrettable.

Muslim and Arab countries were dismayed in September 2009 when the Obama administration refused to support the conclusions of a UN fact-finding mission about the January 2009 Israeli war on Gaza.

Chaired by South African judge Richard Goldstone, the mission determined that both Hamas and Israel had committed war crimes.

But the US said that it was satisfied with Israel's internal investigations into the war and accused the mission of anti-Israel bias. It tried to block the report from being referred to the UN's Human Rights Council and ultimately, the Security Council.

To many in the Middle East, the Obama administration appeared to mimic its predecessors in shielding Israel from international inquiries and condemnation of its policies of occupation and settlement construction.

In November, Netanyahu announced a 10-month freeze on new settlements but pledged that housing construction already underway would continue, and allowed for the "natural growth" of existing settlements. He also said that Jerusalem was the undivided capital of Israel and could not be considered a settlement issue; effectively a non-starter for any final status talks.

The Palestinians said this still fell short of a complete and comprehensive halt to settlements.
In March, hoping to mask Mitchell's failures, Obama sent Vice-President Joe Biden to convince Israel that building settlements in East Jerusalem was unacceptable.

But this ended in a public relations and diplomatic disaster when the Israeli interior ministry announced the construction of 1600 new housing units in East Jerusalem.

Mark LeVine, a Middle East historian and an author on the peace process, believes "The relentless attacks since the 2008 presidential campaign in the US and Israeli right-wing press accusing Obama of being "pro-Palestinian" have worked according to plan, forcing him into overt displays of "even-handedness" precisely when he needs to assign the blame firmly and honestly regardless of appearances."

In early May, the US was able to gain approval from both the Israelis and the Palestinians (with Arab League endorsement) of holding indirect talks as a means to move the peace process forward.
But then came the Israeli military response to the six-ship aid convoy which sailed from Turkey, Greece and Cyprus to deliver humanitarian assistance to the besieged people of Gaza.

The fallout of Israel's killing of activists, the straining of ties with its erstwhile ally Turkey, the international condemnation which Netanyahu's government has earned, and the UN's call for an end to the siege of Gaza will all ultimately further derail, if not entirely torpedo any remnants of the laughable peace process.

The Obama administration has succeeded in doing what two decades of US foreign policies have been unable to do - reduce the level of Israeli and Palestinian involvement in negotiations; the US is now left pleading not for face-to-face talks but indirect talks.

In Cairo last year, Obama said: "We have the power to make the world we seek, but only if we have the courage to make a new beginning, keeping in mind what has been written."

The Arab World is no longer buying into this empty rhetoric. Many believe that the Obama administration is powerless against Israel and is unable to hinder the US strategic alliance with Israel for the sake of stopping settlement activity.

Last year, I wrote that for the first time in nearly two decades, the US had the upper hand in the Middle East and could be on the verge of turning the tide in the relentless propaganda war waged between Washington and Al-Qaeda, among others. But there are urgent steps the Obama administration must take if it hopes to drive Al-Qaeda out of the caves and into the trash-bins of history.

Unfortunately, Obama may be unable or unwilling to take bold initiatives to bring peace to the Middle East.