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Friday, July 22, 2011

Arabs see no hope that US policy can or will change

According to a poll by IBOPE Zogby International, the US President Barack Obama has reached a low point in appreciation by Arabs. (File Photo)
According to a poll by IBOPE Zogby International, the US President Barack Obama has reached a low point in appreciation by Arabs. (File Photo)
Anti-American slogans have largely been absent in the more than six months of mass anti-government protests sweeping the Middle East and North Africa.

But don’t be deceived, attitudes have not changed fundamentally. Priorities have but that is likely to prove temporary.

A demand for dignity underlies the protesters’ demand for greater political freedom and economic opportunity.

For them it is about dignity on an individual level, protection against the abuse of security and law enforcement authorities and petty bureaucrats; on a community level in terms of respect of their rights and protection against corruption and nepotism; and on a national and pan-Arab level, an end to the decades old humiliation by an Israel that acts with impudence and lack of respect for others’ rights.
A poll last week by IBOPE Zogby International bears this out. The United States under President Barack Obama, despite his overtures to the Muslim world, support for the Arab revolt and an overall more consultative approach to foreign policy that reflects a more realistic accounting of his government’s ability and capability, has reached a low point in appreciation by Arabs.

The key reason: Mr. Obama’s perceived inability or unwillingness to curb Israeli excess and force Israel to adopt a policy that would make peace with the Palestinians possible after having significantly raised expectations.

Those expectations skyrocketed after Mr. Obama’s celebrated speech to the Muslim world in 2009 in Cairo. Arabs took him by his word. They believed him when he vowed to change Washington and the world. Mr. Obama may have been serious but failed to caution that change is slow, incremental and often a process of two steps forward, one step backwards.

Two years later, 4,00 respondents to last week’s poll in Morocco, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the UAE had a lower opinion of the United States than in 2008 at the end of the administration of President George W. Bush, widely viewed as anti-Muslim and unilateralist and condemned on Arab streets for his war on terrorism.

If anything, Mr. Obama has cemented a belief that the problem with the United States is structural. It is not about a US president having the courage to brook the powerful Israeli lobby in the United States and developing an approach independent of Israel to Middle East peacemaking.

Mr. Obama’s failure to achieve a halt to the construction of Israeli settlements on Palestinian land and to recognize the borders prior to the 1967 Middle East war as the basis for a future Palestinian state has persuaded many in the region that no American president will be able to budge Israel. So did Israeli Prime Minister’s Benyamin Netanyahu’s enthusiastic reception in the US Congress after he rebuked Mr. Obama.

Essentially, Arabs see no hope that US policy can or will change.

That belief is what is pushing Palestinians to seek recognition of their statehood in September at the United Nations General Assembly. It is also what will shape policy in an Arab world in which irrespective of whether autocratic rulers remain in place or have been removed governments will have to be more in tune with public opinion and that is decidedly pro-Palestinian.

What it doesn’t mean is that states like Egypt and Jordan will abrogate their peace treaties with Israel or halt their secret or not so secret contacts with Jewish state. It does mean, however, that Arab leaders will no longer pursue policies that effectively support Israel and appease the United States.

Take post-revolution Egypt for example. It poses no threat to the peace treaty with Israel and will not irrespective who emerges on top of elections later this year.

But in the five months since the fall of President Hosni Mubarak, Egypt has opened the Refah crossing effectively dealing a significant blow to Israel’s blockade of the Gaza Strip and engineered an albeit faltering reconciliation between Hamas and Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas’ Al Fatah. Pro-Palestinian manifestations in the streets of Egyptian cities have demanded increased support for the Palestinians but steered clear of the peace treaty itself.

If Arab leaders have to listen more to public opinion, so does the United States. That is easier said than done in a nation where public opinion is decisively pro-Israel.
Perhaps a glimmer of hope is that Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in an interview this week with Al Arabiya cautiously expressed support for Arab protesters. Mr. Netanyahu no doubt recognizes the implications of his recognition of facts on the ground.

That may not signal an immediate or sudden change in Israeli policies. It does however indicate a creeping realization that the world around Israel is changing. That will ultimately force change in Israel. Perhaps that is the key to change in Washington.

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