Arab world says hopes in Obama are dwindling

Arabs are unconvinced Obama will stand up to Israel on settlements.

Published March 17, 2010 6:21PM (EDT)

Arabs across the Middle East are unconvinced the United States will stand up to Israel despite Washington's rare public outrage over plans to build new Jewish homes in a traditionally Arab part of Jerusalem.

The skepticism is eroding Arab hopes that President Barack Obama will push hard for a long-sought peace deal between Israel and the Palestinians to end a conflict that has fueled anti-U.S. sentiment in the region. America's dwindling credibility could also jeopardize another major Mideast goal -- uniting the Arab world against Iran.

Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut, said Arab countries will be less likely to engage with the U.S. on issues such as Iran if they get nothing in return.

"A lot of the Arab countries already in the last year saw that there wasn't much delivery from the U.S. on the Israeli side," Salem told The Associated Press. "So why engage, why compromise, from their point of view?"

The United States has been working for more than a year to get Israel and the Palestinians negotiating again, and Washington strongly criticized Israel's plans, announced last week, to build 1,600 apartments in disputed east Jerusalem. Israel captured east Jerusalem in the 1967 Mideast war, and Palestinians claim the sector as a capital of a future state.

The building plan touched off the worst U.S.-Israeli diplomatic feud in decades.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton called the announcement an insult. U.S. envoy George Mitchell, who had hoped to wrap up preparations for relaunching Israeli-Palestinian peace talks, called off a visit to the region.

But Clinton was quick to soften her tone, saying there is "a close, unshakable bond between the United States and Israel and between the American and Israeli people."

Such rhetoric fuels Arab doubts that Washington will press its ally to make concessions widely seen as necessary for any final peace deal with the Palestinians.

During a speech in Cairo in June, Obama called for a complete settlement freeze and the creation of an independent Palestinian state. But Arabs were disillusioned when his administration appeared to back down and accepted a partial 10-month freeze called by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu late last year.

Badei Musa, 55, a Palestinian engineer who lives in Dubai, said he does not trust America's stated opposition to the settlements.

"It's a joke," Musa said. "What's happening on the ground, that's what counts."

Jordanian political analyst Oreib Rentawi said Wednesday that Arabs do not believe there is true disagreement between the United States and its longtime ally, Israel.

"Arabs consider what is taking place now as a summer cloud or a storm in a tea cup," Oreib Rentawi told the AP.

In Egypt, a column in the Al-Gomhuria newspaper expressed doubt that Israel would face any repercussions for its actions.

"The extremist ruling clique (in Israel) knows well that they are outside the range of being punished by sanctions, economic or political boycott or even a threat to freeze aid," wrote Sameer Ragab.

Obama did get some vocal support from the Arab League. In Beirut, the group's secretary general, Amr Moussa, said Arabs should praise the U.S. president. "The man has in fact said the right things and tried hard," Moussa said.

Still, the mistrust has already hurt U.S. policy. U.S. allies Saudi Arabia and Gulf nations have rejected U.S. pressure to make diplomatic gestures to Israel to encourage it in the peace process, citing its hard line on settlements.

It could bleed over into other realms, such as U.S. attempt to isolate Iran, which Washington and its allies accuse of seeking to develop nuclear weapons. Tehran denies the claims.

Regional powerhouse Saudi Arabia is a central player in Washington's efforts to build a front against Iran. In recent months, the kingdom has taken a tougher, more vocal tone against Tehran, reflecting its own fears over a possible Iranian nuclear program but also over mainly Shiite and non-Arab Iran's spreading influence in the Mideast and support for militant groups.

But Saudi Arabia may grow more reluctant to play such a public role if resentment over the United States grows because of peace process failures.

The latest tumult over Israel is not the first time Obama's overtures in the Arab world have fallen flat. Last month, Syrian President Bashar Assad rejected U.S. calls to loosen his longtime alliance with Iran, even as Washington named the first U.S. ambassador to Damascus since 2005 and sent top diplomats to meet with Assad.

Maryam Abdul-Qadr, a 47-year-old Palestinian living in Dubai, said Arabs are still waiting for Obama to deliver on his promises.

"Obama promised a lot of things, but within this one and a half years there is nothing happening," she said. "Only talking."


AP Writers Jamal Halaby in Amman, Jordan, Hadeel al-Shalchi and Maamoun Youssef in Cairo, Albert Aji in Damascus, Syria and Sinan Salaheddin in Baghdad contributed to this report.

By Elizabeth A. Kennedy

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