Saturday, August 15, 2009

"Arabs have to meet halfway"

-Published in Hurriyet Daily News on August 15, 2009-
-Hurriyet Daily News'te, 15 Agustos 2009 Tarihinde Yayinlanmis Makalem-

Hisham Melhem was the first journalist to interview new American President Barack Obama in January, only one week after his inauguration. Melhem is the Washington bureau chief of Al-Arabiya, the Dubai-based satellite channel, and the correspondent for Annahar, the leading Lebanese daily. He received wide recognition with the Obama interview, though he is known in Washington for many of his other interviews, including previous President George W. Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Melhem's Obama interview made much impact around the world and especially in the Muslim world in many respects, and one of them, was because for the first time Obama had a chance to extend the olive branch to the Muslim world after he took office. So, I was very curious what Melhem thought about Obama's performance since then and if he thought Obama has been truthful to the promises he made at the beginning of his presidency.

I first asked Hisham Melhem how he saw the Obama administration's new policies of “listening” and “talking” to friends and foes alike so far. These new mottos had started to be heard with the Obama administration and his top advisers so as to display the difference between his and the previous administration's “dictating” policies. These messages were also important signals he gave to the Muslim world during Melhem's interview.

Melhem answered: "Obama indeed is listening to the Arabs, Turks and Iraqis. He uses a different language than the Bush administration, for the last six months, promising to close Guantanamo Bay, taking steps to stop torture, giving up using “war on terror” and many other offending terms and definitions when describing the Muslim world.” The flammable language Bush used, Melhem thinks, made many Muslims angry across the world. On the other hand, Obama seems to be seriously trying to understand the Muslim world and be sensitive to their needs. Though, Melhem switched the gear at this point and said that it is time for Arabs to respond to his rhetoric and "meet halfway."

I would like to emphasize that Obama's public confrontation with Israel's position on the settlement issue puts all the pressure on the Israeli side for some time. After this uplifting rhetoric, we have been unable to hear much from the Arab leaders on the Middle East peace process. The leaders of Palestine seem to be sitting on a fence and watching how this duel will play out by itself. Melhem says, for the sake of rapprochement, the Arab and the Muslim world also have to move closer to Obama's courageous oratory. With the ongoing impasse between the Netanyahu government and the Obama Cabinet over the settlement issue, in my opinion the Arab world would grab the upper hand, and help the process, if they can make some symbolic gestures in light of Melhem's insightful observations.

At the same time, Melhem continues, there are other parallel promises that were made by Obama; these also must be upheld. For instance, Obama has to show the audacity of hope to keep up with the troop withdrawal timetable in Iraq. So, I asked him if he thought Obama can really keep up with his unbending posture over the demand of freezing the Israelis’ illegal settlements in the West Bank and Jerusalem. I also reminded him about the recent mounting pressure on Obama from the U.S. Congress and the American press as I argued in my last column.

Melhem plainly said that "that is what we hope." He pointed out that two weeks ago, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's tough statement and calling the Israeli security forces' eviction of Palestinians from their homes in Jerusalem a "provocative act" also shows that Obama and his Cabinet are serious about stopping some of the unjust behavior of Israeli security forces.

"If Obama buckles under the pressure from Netanyahu and his friends, especially in Washington, D.C.,” Melhem says, “then Obama will lose all his credibility" and the hope that he has built with the Muslim world. "Obama knows the stakes are high" and such a U-turn would be disastrous, Melhem vividly articulated. Therefore, the only way forward for Obama is to go from here on the path shown so far. There is no other alternative, if this administration really wants to do something drastic about the Middle East peace process.

Though it will not be easy, according to Melhem, Netanyahu will try to drag this out as much as possible and wait for other urgent domestic issues to face Obama. As is known, America nowadays has real economic and social problems to deal with. As I tried to argue in recent weeks in these pages, when the members of Congress return from the August recess in the fall to work on health care reform and other issues, Obama will need Congress to back him up desperately, given his plummeting job approval ratings and tough summer break he and his party members are having while trying to push the health care overhaul.

Melhem also argued that "friends of Netanyahu's," or in other words, the soft power of Israel, will be even more pressuring in the coming months and in the next year, considering there will be a mid-term election. Then the Democrats will pressure Obama not to alienate the Jewish voters and other interest groups. Therefore, Obama has to make some real headway as soon as possible during the rest of this year and the beginning of the next year. Melhem thinks that Netanyahu will do everything to drag on this process to the America's mid-term elections. Then, probably, the mighty arm of the Jewish lobby will take care of the rest. In this scenario, if Obama bows to Netanyahu's friends, Netanyahu will probably get some kind of compromise on the settlement issue and use it as a “tactical victory” for his own political purposes.

The Middle East process is a rocky road and embedded with many thorny issues. Mr. Melhem suggests that Obama started off well and has done some confidence building within the Arab and Muslim world. But this rocky road has to be walked as quickly as possible and cleaned from the thorns. If it will drag on more than it is supposed to, I fear that the sides will get back to square one and say “good bye” to the peace process.

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