Al-Ahram Weekly Online   14 - 20 May 2009
Issue No. 947
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Salama A Salama

Obama's speech

By Salama A Salama

President Barack Obama is coming to Egypt to deliver his country's message to the Muslim world. In his speech, the US president is expected to outline an overall approach to Middle East peace, perhaps even a formula that ends the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians.

We have a reason to believe that Obama consulted his European allies beforehand. Perhaps he has thought of ways of defusing the antagonism between Iran and its Arab neighbours. And he must be aware that Egypt cannot be expected to coordinate with Israel against Iran.

We have no way on knowing the specifics of Obama's speech beforehand. But one assumes that he may speak about other parts of the Islamic world, perhaps even refer to Indonesia, a country in which he spent a significant part of his childhood.

Peace is such a noble goal. But one finds it hard to imagine a peace in which a hardline Israeli government such as that of Netanyahu may fit. As for Iran, already embroiled in Iraq and buffeted by the tensions caused by the US occupation of this country, one can only guess at what can be done to reconcile it with the Americans.

But for all the gloom that surrounds us, one has to look for the silver lining. And the fact that Obama is not Bush. The US president talks differently and thinks differently from his predecessor, and is thus much better placed to release the tensions and defuse the hostilities that have loomed over the region for nearly eight years now.

But what exactly are we doing to make things easier for ourselves? So far, I can see no indication that Arab countries are willing to set aside their differences and find a common voice with which to relay their message to the world. If anything, old suspicions were taken out and dusted off as soon as reports of Obama's trip to Cairo broke. Once again, the hardliners (Syria, Iran, Hizbullah) and moderates (Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Jordan) of the region are digging in their heels. But do they really need to do so? Already the moderates have ruled out any coordination with Israel. They didn't do much business with the Olmert government and now that Netanyahu is in power there is hardly any chance of rapprochement with the Israelis.

The moderates have been long trying to bring the Palestinians together and heal the rift between Hamas and Fatah. Regardless of any misgivings over the current Israeli government, Palestinian unity is still a priority. So far, the Obama administration has been generally supportive of the Palestinians and appreciative of their predicament. The Obama team has spoken out against Israel's building of settlements and for a two- state solution. So it could be immensely helpful if the Palestinians got their act together and started speaking to the US administration in one voice.

The Americans and Europeans have been coordinating their foreign policies for some time now. Since Obama took office, US officials have been holding successive meetings with their European counterparts to formulate a common policy on East Europe, energy, and the Middle East. For all we know, the Americans have done their homework. Obama is likely to come up to the Middle East with a comprehensive policy that has been coordinated with his European allies. Meanwhile, what have we done? Have the moderates been talking to the hardliners? Is Fatah any closer to a deal with Hamas? Is anything resembling a unified Arab or Islamic policy about to emerge? Unfortunately, I don't think so.

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