Palestinian Statehood: Why Arabs Have Turned on Obama

Article excerpt

A year ago, President Obama wowed the United Nations General Assembly by announcing that he looked forward to welcoming an independent Palestine into the community of nations in 12 months. Yet there he was last week, explaining why he would veto a Palestinian statehood bid in the UN Security Council.Mr. Obama, who made Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority from the outset of his administration, is now the US leader with incongruously bad relations with the Arab world. Here are three key causes of the deterioration in relations - and three steps that the United States can take to mend ties.

A year ago, President Obama wowed the United Nations General Assembly by announcing that he looked forward to welcoming an independent Palestine into the community of nations in 12 months. Yet there he was last week, explaining why he would veto a Palestinian statehood bid in the UN Security Council.

Mr. Obama, who made Israeli-Palestinian peace a priority from the outset of his administration, is now the US leader with incongruously bad relations with the Arab world. Here are three key causes of the deterioration in relations - and three steps that the United States can take to mend ties.

#6 Rhetoric vs. reality

"There's a sense the US is not doing what it set out to do," says Jon Alterman, director of the Middle East program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. "The president says he's going to do things, and those things don't happen."

The standout example of the gulf between rhetoric and reality is Obama's lofty speech in Cairo in June 2009 - in which he talked about a new beginning in US relations with the Arab and Muslim worlds, based on mutual respect and understanding.

But it's hardly the only example. On his second full day in office, Obama named former Sen. George Mitchell as his Mideast envoy, raising high hopes. But after scant progress, Mr. Mitchell resigned this past May.

Also playing a role, some say: a sense of US hesitation over what to do as Hosni Mubarak teetered in Egypt early this year.

#5 For US interests, Arab Spring was a 'mine field'

As authoritarian Arab regimes started to crumble this year, many Arab intellectuals looked at what they saw as America's halting response and concluded that Obama risked ending up on the wrong side of history. But what they were really seeing, some regional experts say, was the reality of US interests trumping other motivations and sometimes even ideals.

"The Arab world may have thought that the problem with America was George W. Bush, but what both Obama and the Arabs discovered is that it's not just a matter of public relations," says Ariel Roth, director of global security studies at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. "Sometimes American interests are in direct conflict with the articulated interests of the Arab world."

Dr. Roth points to the kid gloves that the US has donned to deal with Bahrain's aggressive response to protests. This is explained by the fact that the US Fifth Fleet is stationed there.

Overall, the task for the US earlier this year quickly became how to shift from supporting authoritarian regimes to advocating their democratic replacements while safeguarding the region's stability. Inevitably, some groups were going to feel disappointed, says Daniel Levy, director of the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation in Washington.

#4 Arab solidarity on Palestinian issue

For decades, some regional scholars said the notion of Arab solidarity with the Palestinians was a myth. But the controversy over their statehood has demonstrated, some argue, that the Palestinian struggle is a matter of pride and fairness among Arabs - especially as the international community champions other younger pro-independence conflicts. …