Arabs hope for Obama change, Israelis expect more of same

21 January 2009 – Yahoo News
Arabs were hopeful on Wednesday that President Barack Obama will make changes to US policy on the Middle East, in stark contrast to Israel in the wake of the Jewish state’s deadly assault on Gaza.

“This region is looking forward to your handling of the Palestinian cause from the first day of your tenure,” Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak said in a cable to congratulate Obama on his inauguration.

“It is an urgent priority and the key to all the other difficult crises of the Middle East,” said Mubarak, whose country is hoping to negotiate a lasting ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Islamist movement Hamas.

Israeli leaders, meanwhile, expressed confidence Obama would not alter the course too much from that of George W. Bush’s outgoing administration, which strongly backed the Jewish state’s operations in the Palestinian territories.

“The core policy of the United States will certainly not change,” Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Chaim Ramon said.

“This policy has two principles: the struggle against terrorism and the need to achieve peace on the basis of two states,” he said, referring to a peace plan supported by the Quartet of key Middle East diplomatic players.

Senior Likud MP Yuval Steinitz recalled Obama’s “fruitful” talks with the opposition party’s leader Benjamin Netanyahu, saying relations between the two men would be “excellent”.

Netanyahu, widely tipped to emerge as prime minister after February 10 elections, himself spoke positively of Obama and their meeting in Israel in July last year.

“I took away the impression that Barack Obama understood our distress very well as well as the cruelty of the enemies we face,” the former Israeli prime minister said on Tuesday.

When he visited Israel as a Democratic candidate, Obama offered firm support for the Jewish state and warned a nuclear-armed Iran would be a serious threat.

Obama plans this week to name former Northern Ireland peacemaker George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy to deal immediately with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, The Washington Post reported.

And the US Senate was expected to vote on Wednesday on Hillary Clinton’s nomination as secretary of state, a post she intends to use to make a new push for regional peace.

Gulf Arab observers welcomed Obama’s inauguration with hopes for change, but with caution that the first black US president would not compromise his country’s strategic alliance with Israel.

“Those who think US policy will reverse 180 degrees are mistaken because they raise the ceiling of hope too much.

“Similarly, those who think US policy will not change at all are also mistaken. We have to be realistic,” Kuwaiti political analyst Sami al-Nasef said.

Obama kept a guarded silence during Israel’s 22-day military offensive on the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and which only ended on Sunday, just two days before the inauguration.

In his inaugural speech, the new US president sent out what Arab commentators saw as a positive message: “To the Muslim world, we seek a new way forward, based on mutual interest and mutual respect.”

Egypt’s Mubarak told Obama in his message that he hopes “the next phase will witness a new stage of fruitful consultations between us on the various issues of the Middle East.”

“With Obama, US foreign policy in the Middle East will significantly change, especially as concerns Iran,” predicted Lebanon’s Al-Akhbar daily, which is close to the Hezbollah-led minority in parliament.

“The makeup of his new team indicates a more diplomatic and pragmatic approach that favours dialogue and reconciliation while maintaining Israel’s security as a priority,”

But the tide of global hope that has surged with Obama’s arrival has not reached Gaza, where more than 400 children were among the dead and 5,000 people were wounded in Israel’s war on the impoverished territory.

“Obama won’t bring my husband back to life,” said Leila Khalil. “He was martyred and left me with six children to feed on my own. And Obama won’t repair our house that was damaged in the (air) raids.”

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