Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Unrequited Hope: Obama and Palestine

Academic journal article Arab Studies Quarterly

Unrequited Hope: Obama and Palestine

Article excerpt

America's strong bonds with Israel are well known. This bond is unbreakable. ... On the other hand, it is also undeniable that the Palestinian people-Muslims and Christians-have suffered in pursuit of a homeland. ... The only resolution is for the aspirations of both sides to be met through two states, where Israelis and Palestinians each live in peace and security. ... Palestinians must abandon violence. Resistance through violence and killing is wrong. ... The Palestinian Authority must develop its capacity to govern, with institutions that serve the needs of its people. ... Israelis must acknowledge that just as Israel's right to exist cannot be denied, neither can Palestine's. ... And finally, the Arab states must recognize that the Arab Peace initiative was an important beginning, but not the end of their responsibilities1

President Barack Obama's much quoted speech, given at Cairo University early in his first term, offered some hope that, after more than 50 years of conflict, the United States might serve as a truly neutral mediator to achieve statehood for the Palestinians and an end to the Arab-Israeli conflict. With the sole exception of Jimmy Carter, who after taking office, and in the years since leaving Washington, has become highly knowledgeable about the conflict and who speaks more forcefully about the need and justice of a Palestinian state than any other past US president, Barack Obama arguably knew more about the complex history of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the plight of the Palestinians than any candidate to enter the White House. Obama's unique childhood had given him experience in living outside the United States and, over the years, he had enjoyed the company of a wide variety of friends from different religious and national backgrounds. While an undergraduate at Occidental College, Obama studied the Arab-Israeli conflict and argued for the inclusion of the Palestinians directly in the peace process.2 Hence, after Obama's election and his outreach to the Arab world, as evidenced by the extremely well-received Cairo speech, Palestinians and their supporters were cautiously optimistic.

Failed Negotiations

In the eight years since, these hopes have been dashed. They died because of the political intransigence of the Binyamin (Bibi) Netanyahu administration in Israel and political realities in the United States. But in the heady first week of Obama's presidency, hopes were high. As one of his first actions in office, Obama called Mahmud Abbas, as well as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, and King Abdullah of Jordan, to emphasize his commitment to the peace process.3 To jump-start the stalled peace process, Obama, on only his second day in office, appointed George Mitchell as Special Middle East envoy. Mitchell, an Arab American, had extensive experience in the region; during the George W. Bush presidency, Mitchell authored a special report calling for a freeze of Israeli settlements in the Occupied Territories. The details of Mitchell's and, later, John Kerry's failed attempts to mediate an overall peace agreement have been described in numerous accounts-some more pro-Israeli and others more pro-Palestinian4-hence, a short summary of actions taken during his first years in office will suffice, before Obama's actions dealing with the conflict in the last weeks of his presidency are described in some detail.

In 2009, newly appointed Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton announced that until Hamas recognized Israel's existence it would not be included in future negotiations, while Mitchell emphasized that the United States planned to include the 2002 Arab League peace initiative as an integral part of future negotiations. The Arab Peace Plan, proposed by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, who later acceded to the throne, was presented and adopted by the Arab League Summit in Beirut in the spring 2002, during the George W. Bush administration. In short, the Plan proposed that all the Arab states were prepared to recognize Israel and end hostilities, dependent on a full Israeli withdrawal from the Occupied Territories, while reaffirming Arab commitment to the land for peace principle. …

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