Middle East studies in the News
World Watches to See if New Perspective in Washington Brings Shift on Mideast [incl. Rashid Khalidi]
by Helene Cooper
WASHINGTON — Five weeks ago, President Obama stood before the Turkish legislature in Ankara and said that many Americans had Muslims in their families or had lived in a Muslim-majority country. "I know," he said, "because I am one of them."
But will that exposure lead Mr. Obama to take a different tack from his predecessors in his dealings with Israel?
That question, which has captivated a wide spectrum of people, from America's Israel lobby to its Palestinian-Americans to the Muslim world at large, will take center stage on Monday, when Israel's new and hawkish prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, has his first face-to-face meeting with Mr. Obama since he became president.
"This is a piece of the cloud that's hovering over this meeting: is this man different?" said Aaron David Miller, a former Middle East negotiator at the State Department and the author of "The Much Too Promised Land: America's Elusive Search for Arab-Israeli Peace." "The fact that he's African-American. The fact that his middle name is Hussein. The fact that the world for him is not black or white, that the Israeli-Palestinian situation is not black and white, there is gray, and in that gray lies the ability of this president to understand the needs and requirements of Palestinians. Is that on Benjamin Netanyahu's mind? There's no question that that's there."
Mr. Obama's past suggests why, four months into his presidency, the answer to the question remains elusive. His first book, "Dreams From My Father," delves deeply into matters of race and nationality and the need to belong somewhere, issues that permeate the Arab-Israeli conflict. But in the book Mr. Obama does not address specifically how he views Israel and the plight of the Palestinians.
As a state senator in Chicago, Mr. Obama cultivated friendships with Arab-Americans, including Rashid Khalidi, a Palestinian-American scholar and a critic of Israel. Mr. Obama and Mr. Khalidi had many dinners together, friends said, in which they discussed Palestinian issues. During the 1990s, Mr. Obama also frequently attended tributes to Arab-Americans, where he often seemed "empathetic" to the cause of Palestinians, said Ali Abunimah, a Palestinian-American journalist who lives in Chicago near the Obamas' Hyde Park home.
This contrasts with the more "tabula rasa" image of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that many of Mr. Obama's predecessors brought to their presidencies — a blank slate which was then shaped by the strong alliance with Israel that is a fixture of politics in the United States, many Middle East experts say.
"I think this president gets it, in terms of the suffering of the Palestinians," said Charles W. Freeman Jr., a former United States ambassador to Saudi Arabia. "He gets it, which is already light years ahead of the average elected American politician."
Mr. Obama's immediate predecessors, President Bill Clinton and President George W. Bush, came of age politically with the American-Israeli viewpoint of the Middle East conflict as their primary tutor, said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli peace negotiator. While each often expressed concern and empathy for the Palestinians — with Mr. Clinton, in particular, pushing hard for Middle East peace during the last months of his presidency — their early perspectives were shaped more by Israelis and American Jews than by Muslims, Mr. Levy said.
"I think that Barack Obama, on this issue as well as many other issues, brings a fresh approach and a fresh background," Mr. Levy said. "He's certainly familiar with Israel's concerns and with the closeness of the Israel-America relationship and with that narrative. But what I think might be different is a familiarity that I think President Obama almost certainly has with where the Palestinian grievance narrative is coming from."
None of this necessarily means that Mr. Obama will chart a course that is different from his predecessors', or put more pressure on the Israeli government. During the presidential campaign he struck a position on Israel that was indistinguishable from those of his rivals Hillary Rodham Clinton and Senator John McCain, even going so far as to say in 2008 that he supported Jerusalem as the undivided capital of Israel. (He later attributed that statement to "poor phrasing in the speech," telling Fareed Zakaria of CNN that he meant to say he did not want barbed wire running through Jerusalem.)
Still, many Palestinian-Americans who hoped that Mr. Obama would come into office and quickly seek to press the Israeli government on Palestinian issues have been disappointed.
"In practice, despite the hype, there is much more continuity with previous administrations," Mr. Abunimah said. "People get carried away with the atmospheric change, but the substance of the U.S. policy towards Israel has been the same policy."
Last year, for instance, Mr. Obama was quick to distance himself from Robert Malley, an informal adviser to his campaign, when reports arose that Mr. Malley, a special adviser to Mr. Clinton, had had direct contacts with Hamas, the militant Islamist organization that won the Palestinian legislative elections in 2006 and that controls Gaza. Similarly, he distanced himself from Zbigniew Brzezinski, a former national security adviser who was often critical of Israel, after complaints from some pro-Israel groups.
And Mr. Obama offered no public support for the appointment of Mr. Freeman to a top intelligence post in March after several congressional representatives and lobbyists complained that Mr. Freeman had an irrational hatred of Israel. Mr. Freeman angrily withdrew from consideration for the post.
But Mr. Freeman, in a telephone interview last week, said he still believed that Mr. Obama would go where his predecessors did not on Israel. Mr. Obama's appointment of Gen. James L. Jones as his national security adviser — a man who has worked with Palestinians and Israelis to try to open up movement for Palestinians on the ground, and has sometimes irritated Israeli military officials who say he occasionally pushes them too hard — could foreshadow friction between the Obama administration and the Israeli government, several Middle East experts said.
The same is true for the appointment of George J. Mitchell as Mr. Obama's special envoy to the region; Mr. Mitchell, who helped negotiate peace in Northern Ireland, has already hinted privately that the administration may have to look for ways to include Hamas, in some fashion, in a unity Palestinian government, a position at odds with the Bush administration.
Mr. Obama's meeting with Mr. Netanyahu, while crucial, may only preview the beginning of the path the president will take, Mr. Freeman said. "You can't really tell anything by what happened to me and the fact that he didn't step forward to take on the skunks," he said, referring to his own failed appointment and Mr. Obama's silence amid critics' attacks. "The first nine months, Nixon was absolutely horrible on China. In retrospect, it was clear that he had every intention to charge ahead, but he was picking his moment. He didn't want to have the fight before he had to have the fight."
"I sense that Obama is picking his moment," Mr. Freeman said.
Ben Werschkul contributed reporting.Note: Articles listed under "Middle East studies in the News" provide information on current developments concerning Middle East studies on North American campuses. These reports do not necessarily reflect the views of Campus Watch and do not necessarily correspond to Campus Watch's critique.
Campus Watch contact e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org