By Khaled Diab
One of Barack Obama'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 conflict.
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 peace process 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 Egypt this week is part of his charm offensive to win—in that hackneyed and overused expression—“hearts and minds” in the Arab 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 Israel”, 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 Middle East, 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.