The Obama Administration and its Middle East policies
By Uri Savir
President of the Peres Center for Peace
The US administration under President Obama, working through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, understands the equation that exists in the Mid-East region.
Following the Israeli elections, Israel will likely have a narrow right wing government led by Netanyahu, who, in fact, is capable of pragmatism.
The US administration under President Obama, working through Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, understands the equation that exists in the Mid-East region. The Gaza operation brought two coalitions in the Middle East to light. On one hand, there is an Iranian fundamentalist coalition, together with Hizballah and Hamas, devoted to terrorism and to the destruction of Israel. On the other hand exists a pragmatic coalition that sees a common danger in this fundamentalism. The latter coalition includes the Palestinian Authority under Abu Mazen, Egypt, Jordan, and, to a large degree, Saudi Arabia, the Persian Gulf, and the Maghrib. Syria seems to lie somewhere in between these two coalitions.
Given this situation, the Obama administration should take the following measures:
• Convening of an international regional conference
• Setting a time line for Israeli Palestinian negotiations
• Exploring Syria as a realistic partner in the negotiations
• Advancing comprehensive peace in the region, based on the Saudi Initiative that calls for the normalization of relations between all Arab countries with Israel
• Strengthening Israel's security in case of a withdrawal, even to the point of a defense pact
• Improving the relations and mutual understanding with Islam and the Arab world
This situation created after the Gaza operation a window of opportunity that must be exploited by the Israeli government with full cooperation with the Obama administration. The Obama administration also understands that there is a link between peace in the Middle East and the Afghanistan-Iraq situation. The more we succeed, together, to pacify the Middle East, the weaker the extremist elements, such as Iran and its allies, will be. The time to act is immediately upon the establishment of the new Israeli government.
In parallel, the Obama administration should also deal with Western—Islamic reconciliation. In the era of globalization, especially after 9/11 and the American war against Iraq and Afghanistan, there is a dangerous schism in the world between the West (led by the United States) and much of the Islamic world. That shows especially when it comes to public opinion, more than with governments; as we have seen in the public reaction to the shoe-throwing incident, in Baghdad.
• Reasons for the schism between the West and Islam
o In the Islamic world, the globalization of culture, as expressed in a mega-Western culture, was and is perceived as a threat to their own culture.
o The Western world is perceived in the Islamic world, which is mostly religious or traditional, as modern and secular, standing in contrast to the basic values of the Islamic world.
o The 9/11 attacks, although condemned by many in the Islamic world and perpetuated by a minority, had, according to studies, ambiguous reactions among many Muslims. While many condemned terrorism, they also saw in a rather positive light that the United States is not omnipotent.
o The wars against Iraq and Afghanistan are perceived as wars against Islamic countries and not as wars of liberation in favor of democracy. On the contrary, democracy is seen as an American system that the United States wants to impose on them.
o The Bush Administration position—favoring Israel, and for most of the time, not advancing the Palestinian-Israeli peace process—was perceived as anti-Arab and anti-Muslim.
o The attitude of Americans towards Muslims in the United States is perceived as prejudicial and stereotypic, as was expressed in the attitude towards the mere middle name of Barak Hussein Obama.
All these points do not justify the gulf between the West and Islam and Islamic attitudes, but explain them.
• What can the United States do?
o The U.S should, as it intends, withdraw gradually from Iraq and subsequently present a withdrawal plan from Afghanistan. Upon withdrawal, the U.S needs to support infrastructure development and economic growth while building workable democracies in both nations.
o The US administration can show greater openness economically, politically, and culturally to the Islamic world. It should pronounce that imposing a different culture is a mistake and that the same is true for a political system.
o The US should become more educated, in relation to Islam and Islamic countries.
o The US should reach out, politically and economically, to Islamic countries that are not harboring terrorism and create a new dialogue.
o The US should have low-level diplomatic encounters with Iran in order to try and stop the creation of nuclear weapons in return for taking Iran out of its isolation.
o The US should be an honest and active broker in the Arab-Israeli conflict resolution, especially with the Palestinians and Syria, based on the Arab Peace Initiative.
o President Obama should travel to the Middle East region, as well as to some Muslim countries outside of the region and address, there, the broader constituencies.
• Why is it important to Israel? From an Israeli point of view, building a bridge between the West and Islam is important for the following reasons:
o Israel is perceived by the Islamic world as being central to the West. A Western Islamic rapprochement will also improve Israel's image in both the Islamic and Arab world.
o The improving of relations between the West (especially the US) and the Islamic world may help and diffuse the Islamic ambition to create nuclear weapons or, at least, open a dialogue on the issue, which should only be in Israel's interest.
o The improvement of the relations between the West and Islam, with an emphasis on the perception of the Obama administration, can only help the peace process in the region, considering the Saudi Initiative as a basis for negotiations.
The world finds itself at the crossroads between greater stabilization and pacification with the strengthening of the moderate and pragmatic forces in the Islamic world, or a dangerous deterioration by the strengthening of the extremist, terrorist, Islamic elements, especially in the Shiite part of the Islamic world. It is therefore of great importance that the new American administration will strive to a new era in Western—Islamic relations.
The Obama administration is indeed the hope for a more pacified Middle East, with the opportunity to solve the terror and nuclear proliferation problems. It is also the administration able to bring about Western—Islamic reconciliation (including Israeli—Arab reconciliation).
Ambassador Uri Savir was Israel's Chief Negotiator of the Oslo Accords and is today the President of the Peres Center for Peace.