The Obama Difference

In the days since Barack Obama’s speech in Cairo last week there has been a desperate search for substance in between the lines of a great performance. Where are the policies that can change the lives of people in the Middle East hit by the wars and occupations initiated or supported by the United States?

Many have read much into Obama’s speech – that was part of its genius – but it contained no policy announcements. That does not mean there are no policies. The Obama administration works differently from its predecessors in at least three ways.

First, it doesn’t do business on the basis of public pronouncements. There will, for example, be no reprise of Bush senior’s public appeal to the American people that he was “one little lonely guy” facing up to a thousand lobbyists from the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

At that time, the Bush administration wanted Israel to attend the Madrid peace conference in the wake of the 1990-91 Gulf war. The White House also announced its intention to tie loan guarantees to Israel to ending settlement activity. In contrast, the Obama administration looks unlikely to make any public threats.

Second, the Obama administration speaks with one voice. The same tough line – settlements must stop, peace must start – is delivered by Mr. Obama; Vice President Joe Biden, who used to call himself a Zionist; Hillary Clinton, the former stridently pro-Israel junior senator from New York; Rahm Emanuel, who twice volunteered for the Israeli Army; the national security adviser, General James Jones; and the special envoy, George Mitchell.

This seamless act makes it hard for right-wing pro-Israel forces to drive in a policy wedge. This is a far cry from Bush junior’s administration, when Vice President Dick Cheney and the deputy national security advisor Elliot Abrams actively undermined Condoleezza Rice’s efforts.

Third, this is an administration that does its homework. It has studied the rise and fall of previous peace efforts, including Bill Clinton’s hasty and ill-prepared convening of the Camp David summit in 2000. By contrast, weeks before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Washington in May, the Obama team reportedly briefed key Democrats in Congress about possible disagreements with Israel.

When Mr. Netanyahu visited Capitol Hill, expecting to be shielded from the administration, Haaretz reported that he was “stunned” by a coordinated attack against his stand on settlements. Several leading lawmakers, including Jewish ones, said they thought Mr. Netanyahu should be “very, very aware of the concerns of the administration and Congress.”

True, AIPAC secured 329 Congressional signatures on a letter urging Mr. Obama to pursue peace as “a devoted friend to Israel.” But the warnings of senior lawmakers still carry weight.

Meanwhile, it is worth noting some of the policy shifts, however small. For instance, Israelis maintain that they had an understanding with the Bush administration supporting “natural growth” in the settlements. Hillary Clinton shot this down in no uncertain terms. The Obama administration, she pointed out, had been given the official records by the outgoing Bush administration, and there “is no memorialization of any informal and oral agreements. If they did occur, which, of course, people say they did, they did not become part of the official position of the United States Government.”

As for the 2004 Bush exchange of letters with former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon that promised Israel it could have the major settlement blocs plus Jerusalem and minus the Palestinian refugees, the State Department spokesman steadfastly side-stepped a journalist’s questions as to whether or not the letters were binding.

So, yes, nothing has changed on the ground yet. But because of the way it works, the Obama administration has a much better chance of bringing peace to the Middle East than its predecessors. Still, before breaking out the champagne, remember that Mr. Obama works within the boundaries of the American establishment.

Within those narrow confines and given the present Israeli-Palestinian power imbalance, the Palestinians are likely to secure a bare minimum of rights while Israel walks off with the rest. Unless, that is, the Palestinians can rapidly tilt the balance in their favor – or unless Israel’s intransigence does it for them.

NADIA HIJAB is a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies.