Al-Ahram Weekly Online   19 - 25 March 2009
Issue No. 939
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

Low expectations

By Salama A Salama

Obama is starting to lose his popularity already. Fifty days in office and the US president is toning down some of his campaign promises, especially those concerning the Middle East. Many people in Arab countries got their hopes up when Obama took office, thinking the new president would do things differently from his predecessor. Finally, we were going to have even- handed US policy in the region. Now this seems unlikely.

Obama has lost his first skirmish with the Israeli lobby. He had to abandon Charles Freeman as his choice for heading the National Intelligence Council. Freeman, who is known for his outspoken criticism of Israel, was US ambassador in Saudi Arabia and has extensive experience in security and intelligence. The Israeli lobby describes Freeman as "controversial".

Curiously, this is happening at a time when Israel is getting ready to form a racist government, with Avigdor Lieberman as foreign minister. For your information, this is a man who doesn't agree to a two-state solution, doesn't believe in talks with the Palestinians, and has no respect for Arab Israelis. None of this seems to worry the Americans.

For now, Washington remains committed to the memorandum of understanding that Condoleezza Rice and Tzipi Livni signed hours before the end of the Bush presidency. The memorandum concerns the "smuggling" of weapons and military hardware to the "terrorists" in Gaza, i.e. to Hamas and other Palestinian resistance groups.

Washington has asked NATO member states to monitor and prevent the smuggling of weapons via the Mediterranean, the Gulf of Aden, the Red Sea and East Africa. It did so despite the objections Egypt voiced about the impact of the memorandum. Cairo argued that the memorandum conflicted with international law and was unlikely to promote peace. Egyptian officials reminded the Americans and Europeans that the Quartet had asked Israel to stop its attacks on the Palestinians and halt the building of settlements. But everyone is now worried about the Palestinians living up to Western expectations, not Israel playing fair.

Egypt is working against time to bring about reconciliation among Palestinian factions. Now that effort is being compromised. Egypt has been trying to get the Palestinians to sit together and agree on a way for the Palestinian Authority to continue seeking peace. Meanwhile, the Palestinians are being asked to give up their right to self-defence.

A stream of Western officials keeps turning up to ask Hamas representatives to recognise Israel and accept the Quartet's terms. In return Hamas is told it will be recognised as a major partner in negotiations. But what no one is offering the Palestinians are guarantees for their security.

Israel's forthcoming government is unlikely to listen to anything the Quartet says, unless it concerns tightening the noose on the Palestinians. This is what happens when the Americans lose any resolve in the face of pressure from the Israeli lobby. It is what happens when France, Germany, Britain and the rest of Europe forget about Israel's multi- faceted abuse of the Palestinians and instead reminds Hamas that it should behave.

Obama is desperate to sort things out in Afghanistan. To this end he has asked the Saudis to mediate with the Taliban and is willing to hold secret talks with Mullah Omar. Hamas has had no such luck. It is still labelled "terrorist" by the Americans.

Little has changed in American foreign policy. The American administration is bending over backwards to accommodate the demands of the Israeli lobby, just as the Bush administration did and all other US administrations in recent memory.

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