It appears that for the first time, neither Arabs nor Israelis trust the President of the United States to advocate their interests. A recent poll by the Arab American Institute has recorded a significant decline in support for Obama's Middle East policies. In all six of the Arab countries surveyed, Obama's ratings were at 10% or less, making Obama's popular less popular than those of George W. Bush or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, largely due to disappointment Obama has failed to keep the promises of his 2009 Cairo Speech in the context of the Arab Spring. In addition, majorities in all six countries surveyed said "Obama's handing of the Palestinian issue had worsened US-Arab relations", and many consider him to be too pro-Israel. Conversely, a May 2011 poll showed only 12% of Israeli Jews believe that President Obama is pro-Israel, while 40% labeled him pro-Palestinian, as many Israelis have grown more suspicious of the American leader.
The problem appears to lie in the president's style rather than in his substance, as his desire for a peaceful solution is clear and commendable. In his May speech on Middle Eastern affairs, Obama outlined a plan featuring a demilitarized Palestinian state, security arrangements for Israel, and two states based on the pre-1967 lines with mutually-agreed upon land swaps. The Clinton Parameters, which are nearly identical to the outline Obama set forth, appears to be far more popular than Obama's policies – a poll last year put support for the Clinton Parameters at 52% among Israelis and 49% among Palestinians. While these polls do not compare perfectly, the fact remains that Obama finds less support in the region than his general vision does. So what is it about Obama's style that makes his policies so unpopular?
In his attempt to find a middle ground in the highly divisive conflict, Obama often undermines the trust of both sides. When Obama attempted to gain favor with Arabs by advocating the 1967 border with equal land swaps during his May speech, he only succeed in alienating Israelis, who felt he damaged their negotiation position and violated their trust. In 2009 a similar event occurred, when President Obama called on Israel to freeze all settlement activity, including in east Jerusalem, in an act apparently calculated to gain credibility in the Arab world. He made the public demand before consulting Israeli leaders and when he did get their input, Obama promoted a temporary freeze that did not include Jerusalem as originally requested. This action, however, caused him to lose credibility in both Israel and the Arab world, as he first surprised Israel with an unpopular and politically undesirable demand, and then shifted away from that demand, making Palestinian supporters feel like he left them in the dust.
When Obama sets up expectations that are then not met, the trust people have in him erodes. This is a major problem, as in the delicate Middle East peace process, credibility and trust in the mediator are of the utmost importance. Arab democrats and moderates feel abandoned by Obama because they felt they had his support based on his Cairo speech. Similarly, the president has periodically made statements that raised Israeli concerns and overshadowed all the genuine material and diplomatic support he has given to Israel. The president's agenda going forward in the Middle East requires consistency and realistic expectations, as that is the only way to foster public trust, a key to any successful mediation. To rebuild meaningful American stewardship of the peace process, Obama first must find a way to make Arabs and Israelis trust in him before he can help them to trust each other.
To regain trust, Obama should go to Jerusalem and set forth realistic expectations directly to the peoples of the region. The first myth that Obama must address that Palestinians have any real chance of achieving statehood without negotiating with Israel. He needs to tell Palestinian Authority President Abbas that there is no reward to reap from the unilateral declaration of independence he plans to make in September, and that building expectations will only breed frustration and violence when Palestinians realise it will not make their lives better. Rather than accommodating the Palestinian precondition that prevents negotiation without a settlement freeze, the president needs to directly address the Palestinian people, pointing out that the sooner leaders come to an agreement, the sooner Palestinians will have the sovereignty to determine who constructs what in their new state.
He needs to tell both sides to look toward old negotiations as a model – but not a starting point – for new ones. This would involve acknowledging that no peace negotiations have ever seriously discussed full implementation of the 'right of return', and no negotiations ever will. Being coy on the issue of return, which was unmentioned in his May speech, does the Palestinians no favours. Telling Palestinians that Israel is never going to accept any provisions that threaten to fundamentally alter the nature of its state and that the international community will not expect Israel to make such a concession will encourage Palestinians to recognise a reality they have been unwilling to accept, but which is necessary for any agreement. He will not gain popularity amongst Palestinians by doing this, but unpleasant truths damage trust less than raising false hopes.
Obama's job is not to dictate the results of peace negotiations, but rather to make Israelis and Palestinians realise the realities that exist, thus providing the framework, incentives, and disincentives to encourage leaders along the path to a compromise. While telling both sides these brutal truths may be tough, Obama needs to use honesty as his first step toward rebuilding trust in him and in the peace process he hopes to mediate.
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