By George S. Hishmeh
There are great expectations that a new, friendlier era of US policy towards Arab and Muslim countries will be ushered in by Barack Obama’s trip to the Middle East.
Not only will he make an important visit to Saudi Arabia, but also he is due to give a major address in Egypt, underlining his administration’s praiseworthy attempt to engage the Arab and Muslim world to a degree unmatched by his predecessors.
This gesture builds on several commendable actions taken by the first African-American president of the US since he assumed office in January, including granting the first interview to an Arabic television network, calling several Arab heads of state on his first day in the White House and visiting Turkey, a predominantly Muslim country.
The litmus test for his two-day engagement in the Middle East, however, will be whether he takes some concrete steps towards ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.
This is a regional sore point that has marred relations between the Arab world and the US – especially since the prevalent image has been the tight American embrace of Israel since its founding in Palestine, a predominantly Arab country, six decades ago.
In a radio interview, the president acknowledged the "special relationship" that the US has with Israel, but he went on to say there is room for some tough love.
"Part of being a good friend is being honest," he explained, "and I think there has been times where we are not as honest as we should be about the fact that the current direction, the current trajectory, in the region is profoundly negative, not only for Israeli interests but also US interests."
But Aaron David Miller, a former Arab-Israeli peace negotiator for the State Department and author of The Much Too Promised Land, wrote earlier this week that "without laying out a detailed peace plan, the president must talk about how only a two-state solution, based on the June 1967 borders with [Occupied] Jerusalem as the capital of two states, can hold out any hope of ending the Palestinian-Israeli conflict".
Although Obama has recently expressed some positive views on how to settle this conflict, his positions on Israeli colonies in the occupied Palestinian territories, and the US attitude toward Hamas still need further embellishment.
It is undoubtedly going to take more than a speech to redress the US’s shameful history in the region.
After all, it was president Ronald Reagan who unexpectedly and without advance notice dropped the word "illegal" from a circulated speech and used the softer words "not helpful" to describe the growing number of Israeli colonies in the occupied Palestinian territories. All other succeeding US presidents stuck to this incorrect definition thereafter.
At present, Obama wants Israel only to "freeze" any expansion of its colonies in the occupied West Bank, a request that the Israeli government of Benjamin Netanyahu has adamantly refused to comply with.
But what Obama needs to insist upon is actually the dismantling of these colonies, which number more than 500, and are, after all, illegal in accordance with the Fourth Geneva Convention.
"Placing a freeze… invites failure, and risks eroding the credibility of a much-anticipated US effort to end the conflict," wrote Geoffrey Aronson, editor of a bimonthly report on Israeli colonies, a much-respected publication of the Foundation for Middle East Peace that details Israel’s growing expansion into Palestinian territory.
"The urgency of the situation and the failure of all previous [US] efforts to freeze settlements [colony building]," he added, "point to the conclusion that US policy should focus, for the first time, on removing settlements [colonies], defining the border between the states of Israel and Palestine, creating a new security mechanism, and ending the conflict."
Although Obama maintained in an interview with the BBC that his administration will be able to get "serious negotiations" back on track between Israel and the Palestinian Authority, the likelihood of any success in this respect is doubtful unless there is a basic change in the American attitude toward Hamas, the Palestinian group now in control of the Gaza Strip, where more than 1.5 million Palestinians live.
Obama ought to recognise that the Palestinians will not be able to undertake negotiations with Israel unless they unify their ranks and form a unity government.
Much as the Obama administration did not question the composition of the Israeli govenment, which contains extremist right-wing, if not racist, groups, it ought to drop its insistence that Hamas recognise Israel’s right to exist and other conditions set by the Quartet.
Speaking before The Palestine Center of the Jerusalem Fund more than a year ago, Frederic C. Hof, who was then chief of staff of the Mitchell Committee and at present is a deputy to George J. Mitchell, the special envoy for Middle East Peace, questioned whether it is possible "to explore a negotiated end to [the Palestinian-Israeli conflict] so long as the US views Hamas entirely and exclusively through the optic of the Global War on Terrorism." Rather, he argued, Hamas should be "put back where it belongs: in the Palestinian-Israeli context".
– George S. Hishmeh is a Washington-based columnist. He contributed this article to PalestineChronicle.com. Contact him at: email@example.com.