KHOURI: Suggestions for Obama at the UN September 8, 2009

by Rami Khouri  -  Agence Global  -  7 September 2009

Obama ME

BEIRUT — It is at once heartening and perplexing to see growing expectations that US President Barack Obama will make some sort of formal gesture on Arab-Israeli peace-making during his speech at the United Nations at the opening of the General Assembly session later this month. It is heartening because the United States is an essential player in any serious peace-making effort, mainly because it is the only party Israel trusts. So it is important that the United States actively engage in trying to re-start peace negotiations.

Yet, it is perplexing that Obama seeks to do this now, when almost all indicators — including the United States’ own posture — do not inspire confidence in an optimistic outcome. The Palestinians are deeply divided. The Israelis are governed by an extreme rightwing coalition whose ‘peace’ terms would be closer to war crimes in most normal countries. The Arab world remains fragmented and passive, and many other issues seem to attract greater attention from the world — such as Afghanistan and Iraq.

Most importantly, the United States seeks to push the negotiations forward while its own credentials and impact reflect mixed fortunes rather than compelling credibility. The US experiences difficulties in Iraq and Afghanistan; its counter-terrorism and non-proliferation policies show few successes; its Iran policy remains inconclusive; its sanctioning of major Islamist movements has not reduced these movements’ popularity; its re-engagement of Syria has yet to produce practical results; its on-and-off attempts to promote freedom and democracy in the Arab world are an erratic side show; its pressure on Israel to freeze all settlements unconditionally has generated an ongoing negotiation that will probably see a partial freeze for a short period of time only; its cajoling of Arab states to make confidence-building gestures towards Israel seems to be generating very limited steps which mostly have been tried before (visas, trade offices) without any impact; and the laudable new “hug-a-Muslim” rhetoric of the Obama administration has generated reciprocal hugs, but not much else in real policy terms.

This rickety foundation for US policy-making in the Middle East combines with Obama administration vulnerability on domestic issues and other global matters — meaning that a new US Middle East initiative risks going nowhere because of serious constraints and weaknesses among all the principal players in the region and abroad. Yet, the United States has transformed its image and posture in the Middle East since January — especially its links to Iran, Syria, Iraq, Israel and the Arab-Israeli peace process. The shift in American rhetoric on these issues has been decisive and impressive, and has primarily provided the US with a platform of renewed seriousness. At least people listen now, whereas a year ago the United States was widely ignored in the Middle East.

One can argue that the United States is moving prudently by changing its tone, being more realistically involved by speaking to all governments, taking limited initiatives, and trying above all to re-establish its credibility as a truly impartial mediator who addresses the interests of all concerned, rather than acting mainly as Israel’s protector and ally.

It would be understandable for Obama to continue this limited action approach when he speaks at the UN — perhaps livening it up with a meeting with the Israeli and Palestinian leaders. That would essentially be a replay of the Annapolis process that former President Bush tried nearly two years ago, without success. It would also perpetuate the stalemates and failures of the past.

A radical new approach to Arab-Israeli peace-making is needed, and the United States is in a position to drive such a process if it really wants to help the parties achieve peace. If the UN General Assembly is the platform for Obama’s speech, he could consider going back to the General Assembly’s two key resolutions 181 and 194 which called for the partition of Palestine in 1947 and then addressed the Palestinian refugees’ rights in 1948. Obama could suggest that the core of a credible peace process can be extracted from existing UN General Assembly resolutions, updated to take account of today’s realities.

A serious peace process requires grasping the mutual, simultaneous, equal and legitimate rights of Israelis and Palestinians. Revisiting the principles of these two seminal UN resolutions could be a dramatic way for the United States to push for peace. If we’re going to take a few steps back before moving forward, it makes more sense to go back to the core issues of 1947-48 than to the marginal comedy, diversionary unseriousness, and legacy of failure of phenomena like the Annapolis Process, the Quartet, the Road Map — or anything related to the Middle East doings of Tony Blair. Our approach to Arab-Israeli peace-making, like most other things in the political world Obama has inherited and now tries to shape, needs real change, not cosmetic re-makes or illusory magic shows.

Rami G. Khouri is Editor-at-large of The Daily Star, and Director of the Issam Fares Institute for Public Policy and International Affairs at the American University of Beirut, in Beirut, Lebanon.


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