Israeli-Palestinian Deadlock Negates Obama's New Arab Outreach

  • Share
  • Read Later
Khaled Desouki / AFP / Getty

Egyptians listen to US President Barack Obama as he delivers a speech at Cairo University, at a coffee shop in Cairo on June 4, 2009.

When President Barack Obama flew to Cairo two years ago to deliver a speech designed to start an American conversation with the Muslim world, it seemed an almost revolutionary act — and the enthusiasm of his reception was in sharp contrast with the Arab world's widespread hostility towards President George W. Bush. But as Egypt makes revolutionary changes of its own, the prevailing sentiment remains that Obama has been a bitter disappointment. "We were all so hopeful," says Islam Bakr, 52, a security guard in Cairo, remembering how everyone sat glued to the televised broadcast of Obama's June 2009 speech at the American University of Cairo. Now, he says, "Obama is no better than George Bush."

On Thursday Obama plans to try again, hoping through a major Washington speech on the Middle East to align the U.S. with the democracy protests sweeping the Arab world. White House spokesman Jay Carney told reporters on Tuesday that the region's revolutionary wave "is an opportunity not to be missed, in the president's view." Obama believes, Carney said, that "the opportunity is there to help shape a better future for the region and for the world."

But if Obama is hoping to win over Egyptians, he might as well save his breath. In numerous interviews this week around Cairo, Egyptians say they have heard it all before. Deeply cynical about Washington's motivations, most are inclined to expect nothing but more empty promises from Obama's upcoming speech.

It will take quite some time, they say, and certainly more than speeches, to overcome the bitterness they feel over Washington's decades of support for ousted president Hosni Mubarak. Most Egyptians believe that Mubarak's authoritarian, hugely corrupt regime would have collapsed years earlier had it not been for Washington's political backing and billions in annual military aid.

"The U.S. has always claimed it wants democracy, but in fact they have protected all the dictatorships, and they supported Mubarak," says Ahmed Abdo, 34, who runs a soda-and-candy stall on a street off Tahrir Square, the heart of the Egyptian Revolution. When I ask Abdo what he would like to hear from Obama, he thinks a while before saying, "I want to hear nothing from him." And when I ask him what the U.S. should do for the Arab revolutions, he echoes a phrase I hear from several people in Cairo: "Just let us be."

Overcoming that distrust and alienation is a tough task even for a skilled communicator like Obama. That's because for many Arabs — including every person interviewed in Cairo for this story — the litmus test of whether the U.S. is serious about revising its relations with the Arab world, is its attitude to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

That point was underscored last weekend as hundreds of activists tried to reach the Rafah border crossing with Gaza to show support for the Palestinians. They were turned back at Egyptian military checkpoints. But overnight on Sunday, a massive protest outside Israel's Cairo embassy saw about 350 demonstrators injured in battles with police and soldiers, who fired pellets and tear gas. And at last Friday's mass demonstration in Tahrir Square, tens of thousands saw an effigy hoisted next to one of the speakers, with a Star of David on its chest and a noose around its neck.

White House officials say Obama will not announce any new Middle East peace initiative in Thursday's speech. But Egyptian political analysts warn that the paralysis in the Administration's peace effort could be dangerous, now that the Arab Spring has ousted Mubarak, one of only two Arab leaders to have forged diplomatic relations with Israel. The pressure on Israel could increase when Egypt holds its first post-Mubarak parliamentary elections later this year, in which the Muslim Brotherhood is expected to win numerous seats. As long as the Israeli-Palestinian status quo remains intact, the U.S. — which is viewed as Israel's key backer and enabler — will pay a heavy price in Egyptian public opinion.

"The street is dictating terms now," says Anwar Esmat El-Sadat, the namesake of his uncle, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, who in 1978 signed the Camp David peace agreement with Israel— and was assassinated three years later as a result. The younger Sadat, a devotee of his uncle's legacy, says young Egyptians, fired up with revolution, want quick action on Middle East peace. "If the U.S. doesn't come with fresh peace initiatives between Palestinians and Israelis, all the Arab youth will feel very, very bad towards Israel. We cannot hold this down for very long," he says. "People here have the impression that Americans are devils."

When I ask Sadat what Obama should offer Egypt, he suggests he help support Egypt's campaign to win a U.N. Security Council seat and that he push to send back billions of dollars Mubarak and other Egyptians had squirreled away in U.S. banks as a result of corruption. But number one on his list: "Peace between Israel and Palestinians."

White House officials say that rather than focus on the stalled peace process, Obama is likely to stress the positive U.S. moves since the Arab revolts began. For Egypt, those include $1 billion in debt relief and $150 million in aid. To Bakr, the security guard who sat enthralled through Obama's Cairo speech in 2009, those gestures do not mean much. "Nobody cares how much the U.S. spends here, if they do not do anything about Palestinian rights."