Fronting charm on the airways and deploying diplomacy away from the camera’s flash, the Obama administration has landed in the Middle East.
Hours after an interview with President Obama was broadcast across the Arab world by satellite channel Al Arabiya, special U.S. envoy George J. Mitchell arrived in Cairo on Tuesday to discuss the fate of the Gaza Strip.
It was a two-track choreography designed to inspire confidence among the region’s political leaders and win over an Arab street long distrustful of Washington.
“My job is to communicate the fact that the United States has a stake in the well-being of the Muslim world, that the language we use has to be a language of respect. I have Muslim members of my family. I have lived in Muslim countries,” the president told Al Arabiya. “My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect.”
That is refreshing talk here, but the Middle East, where so many U.S. presidents have watched good intentions vanish in bloodshed, extremism and bickering over maps and borders, demands more than conciliatory remarks and eloquent assurances.
The most pressing matter the White House faces is keeping the situation calm in Gaza, where a clash Tuesday broke a 10-day truce and left an Israeli soldier and a Palestinian dead.
Israel’s 22-day battle with the militant Hamas movement, which ended Jan. 18 and left about 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis dead, widened the divide between U.S. allies in the region, including Saudi Arabia and Egypt, and nations such as Syria and Iran that condemn America’s close ties to Israel.
Each country, the threats it faces and the benefits it could gain, was factored into Obama’s TV interview late Monday, which drew applause and criticism from blogs as well as musings in the marketplace.
“He’s kind of hit the ground running,” said Gamal Abdel Gawad, a political analyst at the Al Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. “Even though we don’t have a clue about the substance of what will happen, there is a change in mood and temperament, and these are very important. It will help defuse the tension in the Middle East, not only over how Arabs view the close relationship between the U.S. and Israel but also between divisive Arab regional factions.”
Fawwaz Traboulsi, a columnist for the Lebanese newspaper As Safir, was not as impressed. He said Obama did not show enough concern for the destruction of Gaza. He also compared decades of elusive Palestinian-Israeli peace with the efforts by Mitchell that led in 1998 to the Good Friday peace agreement in Northern Ireland between Roman Catholics and Protestants.
“It is strange to see [Obama] address the Arab world and not have a word to say about the plight of the people in Gaza or the embargo on the Gaza Strip,” Traboulsi said. “What we saw in Northern Ireland is that for the Irish Republican Army to disarm, the demands of Catholics had to be seriously listened to. Similarly here, if you want peace, you need to listen to the Palestinians who want self-determination and to build their own state. Are Americans ready to accept these demands?”
Mitchell’s trip to Egypt, Israel, the West Bank, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and two European capitals is expected to focus on how to rebuild Gaza and prevent Hamas from rearming, to call for a new dialogue between Israel and the Palestinians and to achieve cooperation between Hamas and Fatah, a rival faction led by Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas.
Washington has downplayed the possibility of diplomatic breakthroughs, saying Mitchell -- who is scheduled to start off his meetings by sitting down today with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak -- will spend much of his time listening.
But some Arab leaders are expecting an aggressive approach by Obama. Saudi King Abdullah, one of Washington’s main allies in the region, warned last week that a 2002 Arab peace proposal would not remain on the table for long. Arabs contend that the deal, which offers Israel normalized relations with all Arab states in return for withdrawing from territory it occupied during the 1967 Middle East War, has not been taken seriously.
“Ultimately we cannot tell either the Israelis or the Palestinians what is best for them. They are going to have to make some decisions,” Obama said in his TV interview. “But I do believe the moment is ripe for both sides to realize that the path that they are on is one that is not going to result in prosperity and security for their people. And that instead, it’s time to return to the negotiating table.”
Reaction to the Obama interview on Al Arabiya’s website was split. Some bloggers suggested that there was an opportunity for a critical turning point in Arab-U.S. relations, whereas others argued that if the Obama White House doesn’t strongly support a Palestinian state, it will be as ill received as the Bush administration was.
Al Sharif abu Ananan wrote that if the cause of Arab Muslims “is not addressed and people do not have their rights restored and are not returned to their homes, then Obama will remain like Bush.”
Another writer, who identified himself as Khaled Al Dali, wrote of Obama: “We expect a lot from you not to help us but to have a visionary and responsible position and to be truthful in your decisions. . . . I trust you and many here trust that you will bring change. Don’t disappoint us.”
Special correspondent Raed Rafei in Beirut contributed to this report.