To the Arab world, Obama’s Nobel leaves something to be desired

The Nobel Peace Prize that President Obama receives in Oslo on Thursday seems to many in the Middle East like a cruel hoax.

In June, Egyptians cheered him for pledging an intense personal effort to resolve the region’s problems through negotiations rather than force, and his outreach to the Muslim world was surely on the mind of the Nobel committee when it made the award. In the last three months, however, the Obama administration has steadily undone the president’s initial positive moves by seriously mishandling one of the Middle East’s central issues: the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

Simply put, the administration has severely and perhaps fatally undermined Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. By all accounts, the Palestinian Authority -- and its moderate leader, an architect of the 1993 Oslo accord -- is essential to a negotiated outcome of the long conflict. It is true that Abbas works in the shadow of his late predecessor, Yasser Arafat, and he has been unable to reverse the gains made by the rival Palestinian group Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip. But the administration hasn’t helped: Obama’s aides dragged Abbas like a stooge to a hollow summit with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, then leaned on him to downplay a U.N. report that cited possible Israeli war crimes during the Gaza war. Worst of all, Obama backed away from supporting a key Palestinian Authority position: an insistence on a total freeze of Jewish settlements. Soon, the humiliated Abbas announced that he would not seek another term in office. Ploy or not, the threat reflects the further decline of Abbas’ domestic credibility.

The episode also illustrates the pervasive lack of empathy that blinds U.S. policymakers to the history, culture and politics that drive Arab attitudes and decisions. Obama’s mishandling of Abbas fits a familiar pattern in which Palestinian leaders and Palestinian rights are reflexively downplayed or disregarded in American calculations.

Looking back, President George H. W. Bush commendably convened the Madrid peace conference in 1991. But he excluded Arafat and his Palestine Liberation Organization, then a 27-year-old organization and a central party to the conflict. Predictably, the Madrid talks faltered. The irony was that before long, the Clinton administration would embrace Arafat once Israeli leaders determined he was, in fact, a worthy peace partner.

In signing the Oslo accord, Arafat made a significant concession that infuriated many Palestinians. He surrendered Palestinian claims to 78% of the territory that had become the state of Israel in 1948. President Clinton then further undercut Arafat’s political standing among his people, as well as his faith in negotiations, by failing to hold Israel accountable for violations of the Oslo accord. Indeed, the Clinton administration failed to adequately hold either side accountable.

Reduced to crisis management, Clinton disastrously misjudged Arafat when he convened the Camp David summit in 2000, hoping to broker a historic end-of-conflict agreement. Arafat told Clinton that that ambition was premature because negotiators had still scarcely begun to grapple with the hardest issues of the dispute. Clinton sided with then-Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who had proposed the summit largely as a dramatic gambit to keep his fraying coalition government together. Finally, Clinton blamed Arafat rather than himself or Barak for the summit’s failure. Palestinians responded by launching a bloody intifada.

Palestinians are hardly blameless. Barbarous acts of terrorism have shaped and reinforced America’s largely negative understanding of the Palestinian cause. Yet there is scant effort in the United States to examine the traumatic history that makes Palestinian peacemakers wary of Israeli intentions, frustrated by America’s blanket support for Israel and vulnerable to Arab cries of treason.

The empathy deficit has contributed to a flawed policy framework in which Palestinian interests and demands are automatically questioned or marginalized. The U.S. failed to publicly support the Palestinian demand for statehood until 2002 -- 54 years after Israel’s independence. U.S. officials still resist Palestinian demands for a full end to Israel’s occupation of the West Bank and Gaza. U.S. officials have been equally dismissive of Palestinian positions on other profound issues, such as the right of return for refugees to former homes in Israel. Compromises must and can be found on such issues, but U.S. officials have utterly failed to develop or engineer them.

A devastating critique of U.S. Mideast policy by the U.S. Institute of Peace in 2008 cited “an alarming pattern of mismanaged diplomacy.” Coauthored by Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and Israel and now a Princeton professor, the report criticized the lack of “cross-cultural expertise"-- a good understanding of the Arabs, in other words. “In truth,” recalled former State Department official Aaron David Miller, in his book, “The Much Too Promised Land,” “not a single senior-level official involved with the negotiations was willing or able to present, let alone fight for, the Arab or Palestinian perspective.”

It ought to be a scandal that 18 years after the Madrid peace conference, the U.S. has nothing to show for its diplomacy. The festering dispute continues to take human life, radicalize the Muslim world, undermine regional development and threaten a wider and potentially apocalyptic conflict. When Arafat died in 2004, the George W. Bush administration hailed his successor, Abbas, as a more peaceful and compliant Palestinian leader. Yet, displaying half-heartedness toward peace negotiations while tolerating Israel’s separation “wall” and the spread of its illegal settlements, it didn’t get any further with him than it (or the Clinton administration) had with Arafat.

To effectively encourage the parties to reach a fair and just agreement acceptable to a majority of Israelis and Palestinians, Obama needs to show leadership and become an honest broker. That must include an effort to finally understand the world as Palestinians experience it. Dismissing Palestinian rights -- and taking Palestinian peace partners such as Abbas for granted -- is a certain path to further failure. The Middle East is expecting more from the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize.

Scott MacLeod has covered the Mideast for Time magazine since 1995.