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Restrained Obama leaves many displeased

As civilian casualties mount in the Gaza Strip, President-elect Barack Obama is coming under intensifying pressure to end his disengagement and begin working for a halt to the fighting.

Obama has argued that President Bush remains in charge of U.S. foreign policy until the inauguration on Jan. 20. But critics say hundreds may die in the next two weeks while the president-elect stands by.

The displeasure is threatening the incoming administration’s chances for a honeymoon in the Middle East, where millions have held high hopes after the bitter conflicts that occurred during the Bush years, analysts say. Obama has announced plans for a major speech in a Muslim capital early this year to begin forging a new and positive relationship with Muslims who have been alienated by Bush.

But Riad Malki, the Palestinian Authority foreign minister, expressed disappointment with Obama this week during an appearance at the United Nations. “We expected him to be open and responsive,” he said.

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While Obama has avoided interfering with Bush on Gaza, he has condemned with “the harshest of words” the November terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India, said Al Quds al Arabi, an Arabic language newspaper published in London. “It seems the rules change when the attacker is Israeli and the victim is Arab or Muslim,” the newspaper said.

In an apparent acknowledgment of the growing pressure, Obama broke his silence Tuesday after Israeli shells struck Palestinians in a U.N. school in Gaza, killing at least 30 people.

“The loss of civilian life in Gaza and in Israel is a source of deep concern for me,” Obama said at his transition office in Washington, while continuing to insist that the United States has only one president at a time.

“After Jan. 20, I’m going to have plenty to say about the issue.”

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But he gave no indication of what approach he would take.

Secretary of State-designate Hillary Rodham Clinton, who will be confronted with the crisis as soon as she is confirmed by the Senate, also has been reserved. Clinton has discussed the conflict with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, but has declined to speak publicly. Clinton was regarded as a staunch defender of Israel while serving as a Democratic senator from New York. Her appointment offered reassurances to Israelis wondering about Obama’s intentions, while cooling Arab hopes for a marked U.S. policy shift.

Arab governments, which hope for good relations with the new president, have generally avoided exerting pressure over the issue. But many ordinary Arabs are puzzled, and Arabic news outlets raise the issue regularly.

Hussein Ibish, of the Washington-based American Task Force on Palestine, said he took part in an interview with the Al Jazeera satellite TV news channel in which an anchor “basically berated me” about Obama’s muted response.

Khaled Meshaal, Hamas’ leader, pointed to the president-elect’s silence Monday in declaring that the early stage of Obama’s presidency “is not good.”

And in a recording purportedly made by Al Qaeda’s No. 2, Ayman Zawahiri faults Obama’s inaction, saying the president-elect was falsely portrayed as “a rescuer who will change the policy of America.”

In the United States, some of the liberals who strongly backed Obama’s candidacy expressed unhappiness with his reticence. Blogs such as Huffington Post and Kabobfest carry regular calls for action. “Where is Obama, in the war for hearts and minds?” Philip Weiss of the Mondoweiss blog wrote Tuesday.

Even the Obama campaign’s website, Change.gov, receives entreaties. “Are you going to remain silent on the inhumane war Israel is launching on the Palestinians?” one person, identifying himself as Omakan, wrote from New York.

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Nevertheless, some leading Arab American activists expressed understanding for Obama’s position.

Ziad Asali, president of the American Task Force on Palestine, said many in the Middle East have unrealistic expectations about what Obama can do. The current U.S. policy, with its emphasis on protecting Israeli security, “is more or less the policy of the American establishment” and is likely to continue, Asali said.

“People’s expectations in the Middle East have been inflated, and can’t possibly be met,” he said.

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paul.richter@latimes.com


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