Crossing a Marker

By George S. Hishmeh

Americans of all walks of life are busy nowadays assessing the first 100 days of the administration of Barrack Obama, a traditional yardstick by which a new president’s performance is measured.

The general impression, in the words of one State Department announcement, is that this period has been among “the busiest in presidential history both in terms of domestic initiatives and foreign policy challenges”.

This surely has been the case in the wake of the economic meltdown, in the US and elsewhere, and the round-the-clock meetings to steer the American ship of state back on the right track. It has also been the case with the president’s eye-catching forays in foreign lands, meeting with some friendly and some not-so-friendly leaders, eager to meet him, much to the expected chagrin of his few detractors at home.

In an invitation to a conference that would examine Obama’s crossing the 100-day threshold, the Brookings Institution forecast that “the challenges facing the nation today seem likely to consume President Obama’s first two years – if not his entire first term”.

King Abdullah, who spent several days here last week talking with Obama and other US officials, told a television interviewer that he would like to see “move[ment] towards Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation, I hope, in the next month or two… .”

Or else, he explained “people are looking for a signal [from] the United States. And I know that President Obama is waiting until [Israeli] Prime Minister Netanyahu comes here and listens to what he has to say. But if, right after that visit, there’s not a clear understanding of how America is going to weigh in on these problems, then I think the goodwill of the United States will disappear and I think that people will start cutting their own deals”.

The Monarch did not mince words in his stellar performance (which matched another he had at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies, an influential Washington think tank.)

He declared: “In the next 18 months, if we don’t move the process forward and bring people to the negotiation table, there will be another conflict between Israel and another protagonist. And how many people have to continue to lose their lives? And so the message of the book is basically… this is our last chance.”

Obama has so far come a long way to endear himself to Arab audiences. His appointment, for example, of George J. Mitchell, a seasoned negotiator, as special Mideast peace envoy was Washington’s first signal that it was breaking with the past. And his invitation to King Abdullah to Washington ahead of any other Middle Eastern leader was another major sign that he will give the Arab world more attention than previous administrations.

Topping all that, the Monarch reported that they “had a meeting of the minds”. But this does not mean that thereafter all will be smooth sailing, despite opinion polls showing expanding public support for more US evenhandedness in the Middle East.

A new WorldPublicOpinion.org poll finds that three quarters of Americans think that Israel should not build settlements in the Israeli-occupied Palestinian territories, up 23 points from when this question was last asked in 2002. Another poll released last week by the pro-Israeli Anti-Defamation League reported that American Jews approve Obama’s handling of US policy towards Israelis and the Palestinians by a broad margin of 55 per cent to 21 per cent. Additionally, 61 per cent of American Jews favour the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza.

However, the Obama administration’s reported willingness to accept a role for the Palestinian militant group Hamas, which is in control of Gaza, in a projected Palestinian unity government has touched off some raw nerves in Israel and the US Congress. It apparently escaped Israeli and congressional attention that the US is at present dealing with the Lebanese government which has Hizbollah members, the militant group that is also on the US terrorist list, like Hamas. This gesture was explained as the administration’s attempt to gain congressional approval to donate $840 million to the Palestinian Authority for rebuilding Gaza after the devastating 23-day Israeli military assault on the strip earlier this year.

Yet, fireworks are bound to be heard worldwide when Benjamin Netanyahu, the new rightwing Israeli prime minister, descends on Washington on May 18 to explain his government’s intentions, which so far do not include acceptance of a Palestinian state alongside Israel or an end to Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.

In an apparent attempt to defuse the growing outcry against Netanyahu’s disruptive policies, the wily Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said that peace in the region will be achieved in “three years”. In other words, Obama, as was the case with President Bill Clinton, will not have enough time to clinch a Palestinian-Israeli settlement.

– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: ghishmeh@gulfnews.com.

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