Barack Obama and grassroots change we CAN believe in

By Khaled Diab

One of Barack 's winning campaign slogans was “change we can believe in”. And with his presidency, everything has changed and nothing has changed when it comes to US foreign policy towards the Israeli-Palestinian .

24 June 2009

Compared with his predecessor, Obama has already delivered a substantive rhetorical shift in US foreign policy, with his pledge to rely less on military intervention and more on international diplomacy and dialogue. But this shift is not substantial enough to revive the and set in motion a new dynamic, so I believe that it is up to Palestinians and Israelis to find their own way forward.

The speech Obama will give in this week is part of his charm offensive to win—in that hackneyed and overused expression—“hearts and minds” in the and Muslim world. And Obama's efforts seem to be paying off. A recent poll reveals that, even though more than three-quarters of Arabs regard the United States as the second greatest threat in the world, Obama's approval ratings hover around the 45% point—a vast improvement on George W Bush's public villain number one or two status.

This change in tone and recent signs of a more robust and hands-on approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have led to a certain amount of optimism in some quarters. Writing in the Egyptian al-Ahram Weekly, Emad Gad interpreted Obama's insistence on a settlement-building freeze as a sign that “an independent Palestinian state is a definite possibility”.

At least at this juncture, I find it hard to share this optimism. Obama and Bush might be as different as earth and fire, but the United States they lead is not that radically different. One key reason why the peace process broke down is that Washington has never succeeded in playing the role of an honest and impartial broker. How likely is it that Obama, as a self-described “friend of ”, will lean hard enough on an Israel led by the populist, rightwing Binyamin Netanyahu and his demagogical deputy and foreign minister Avigdor Lieberman, to make the necessary compromises to reach a settlement with the Palestinians, especially with the presence of the equally extremist Hamas sitting among the Palestinian leadership? It is worth recalling that, according to some, the Oslo process was sabotaged largely by Netanyahu and Hamas.

Some hope that Obama will be able to make the most of Egypt's longstanding mediation role in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. But, rather like Washington, Cairo also has its own credibility problem: it is not trusted by the Israeli and Palestinian right wings. In addition, the closure of the Rafah border crossing and other actions that have worsened Palestinian suffering have fuelled a sense of severe disappointment on the part of the Palestinians and anger on the streets of Egypt.

In fact, reform-minded Egyptians feel let down by Obama's visit because it implicitly expresses support for an unpopular regime with a chronic legitimacy deficit. “Some of us hoped for a more frosty relationship between the Obama administration and the Egyptian regime,” said Karim Medhat Ennarah, a young Egyptian who provides legal aid for refugees.

In my view, what the , particularly the Israeli-Palestinian question, needs is not more US involvement, but less. The change that most endures is the kind of change that is organic and comes from within. To help this process, Washington does not need to oppose the regimes in Cairo or Riyadh actively, but to withdraw its current support, such as the $1.3 billion of military aid that goes to Egypt each year. Likewise, Palestinians and Israelis need to find their own way to peace. The way the United States can help this quest is by removing its massive distorting influence, such as the $3 billion in military aid it gives to Israel each year.

Since the dynamic among the players—whether antagonists or brokers—has hardly altered since Obama's arrival on the scene, I think it's time people give up on top-down solutions to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. At this point, gradual grassroots efforts offer the best hope for a breakthrough. One option I have advocated in my writing is to transform the conflict into an incremental socio-political struggle dealing with concrete civil rights—such as freedom of movement, the right to live in security and safety, the right to education and employment, the right to vote, the right to citizenship—rather than abstract notions of nationhood and thorny questions of borders.

Such a bread-and-butter civil rights movement will improve the situation on the ground and could erode the ugly and exclusionary nationalism that has fuelled this conflict for the past six decades.

This article first appeared on the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) on 4 June 2009.


  • Khaled Diab

    Khaled Diab is an award-winning journalist, blogger and writer who has been based in Tunis, Jerusalem, Brussels, Geneva and Cairo. Khaled also gives talks and is regularly interviewed by the print and audiovisual media. Khaled Diab is the author of two books: Islam for the Politically Incorrect (2017) and Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and Palestinians in the Holy Land (2014). In 2014, the Anna Lindh Foundation awarded Khaled its Mediterranean Journalist Award in the press category. This website, The Chronikler, won the 2012 Best of the Blogs (BOBs) for the best English-language blog. Khaled was longlisted for the Orwell journalism prize in 2020. In addition, Khaled works as communications director for an environmental NGO based in Brussels. He has also worked as a communications consultant to intergovernmental organisations, such as the EU and the UN, as well as civil society. Khaled lives with his beautiful and brilliant wife, Katleen, who works in humanitarian aid. The foursome is completed by Iskander, their smart, creative and artistic son, and Sky, their mischievous and footballing cat. Egyptian by birth, Khaled's life has been divided between the Middle East and Europe. He grew up in Egypt and the , and has lived in Belgium, on and off, since 2001. He holds dual Egyptian-Belgian nationality.

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5 thoughts on “Barack Obama and grassroots change we CAN believe in

  • jose linked here saying, “By Khaled Diab, a Brussels-based journalist and wr …”

  • Aedan, indeed, Mitchell played a good mediating role in Ireland – but the conflict in N Ireland was at a completely different stage in its evolution and he just had to give it that final nudge – at least compared to the Il-Pal situation. In the Middle East, he is and was hampered by both the intransigence of the situation and his own government’s unbalanced foreign policy. More on him here

    Declan, good one! Indeed, Dr Bernadiner’s PhD seems to be in mythmaking and racism!

  • Israel-Arab Peace Plan Principles

    Starting in 1948 from very first day of recreation of the State of Israel on the part of Israel territory, Arab countries waged several wars to eliminate Israel from her historic land. Israel won all wars and now Arab countries propose a peace agreement with Israel under conditions, which they intended to dictate. However, only Israel, who won all the wars and defeated Arab countries, has legal rights to formulate and dictate peace agreement terms and conditions, which, in general, shell include the following provisions:

    1. Palestinian muslims must compensate Jews for damages caused by Jews massacres conducted in Palestine in 1920s-1930s under British administration supervision.
    2. Arab countries must compensate Israel for damages inflicted on Israel during wars launched by Arab countries.
    3. Arab countries must compensate several million Jews expelled from Arab countries between 1948 and 1953, where they lived for centuries, for violation of international law and stilling Jewish properties.
    4. Arab countries must recognize Article 24 of the 1964 PLO charter addressed to UN, which stipulates: “Palestinian muslims do not claim Judea and Samaria (West Bank) and Gaza their territories”.
    5. Arab countries must comply with Geneva Convention, which recognizes Israel rights on Gaza, Judea and Samaria, historic Jewish land liberated by Israel in 1967 war from Jordan and Egypt occupation.
    6. Arab countries must recognize Jerusalem as historic Israel capital.
    7. Egypt and Jordan are obligated to relocate Palestinian muslims (their former citizens) from Gaza (Egypt), Judea and Samaria (Jordan) inside their territories within 1 (negotiable) year term.
    8. Arab countries have no right to develop or acquire WMD or weapon that can be used against Israel.

    If any Arab country denies this peace terms and conditions, Israel has full legal rights for preemptive strike against this country using all available military power.

    Mark Bernadiner, PH.D.

    [Note: Parts of this comment have been deleted due to their overt racism and incitment to racial violence]

  • Dear Khaled Diab,

    I think there is a key element in Obama’s strategy that you have not referred to here: the appointment of George Mitchell – author of the Mitchell principles and much more.

    As an Irishman I watched gratefully as Mitchell played a vital role in the transformation of Northern Irish politics away from endless repetition of negative nationalistic slogans into debate on the provision of good roads, schools, hospitals, jobs… Everything you call for.

    He did it by insisting on recognition of the existence and the rights of the other side and an insistence that negotiation is based on a commitment to peace. Until you settle the ground rules and the questions of identity, forget about the efficiency of the infrastructure or any reduction in the US financial commitment to Israeli military.

    Ground rules allow people to experiment with other ways of thinking.

    If Mitchell is to succeed, Israel has at least as far to travel as its neighbors. Its flag is the religious symbol of one section of its society. Its state does not recognize the language, cultural rights, nor the right to full citizenship of around 20%(?) of its own population. A sustainable peace would require an Israel without second class citizens as well as new relations with its neighbors. That’s a big shift for them to make – a shift to a whole new way of imagining their state and the future.

    The barriers are huge. So much in Israel is designed to bolster its image as a state under siege. But it can change. That siege mentality is very familiar to anyone who had contact with Ulster Protestants of 15 to 20 years ago. Their mythology was just as full of sieges as the Israelis.

    Israelis will never have the confidence to open the gates (should that be breach the wall?) without the guarantee of American involvement and support. God help Mitchell.


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