CAIRO, Jan 23 (Jonathan Wright/Reuters) – US President Barack Obama has taken the Middle East by surprise with the speed of his diplomacy but his first statement on the conflict between Arabs and Israelis was strikingly similar to old U.S. policies.
Arab leaders in the meantime are jumping in with their own proposals in the hope of helping to shape U.S. policy before the new administration sets it in stone.
Arab governments and commentators had expected Obama to take his time before turning his attention to the Middle East, concentrating instead on the US economy and domestic concerns.
But the new president, only two days into office, appointed on Thursday a special envoy for the region, veteran mediator and former Senator George Mitchell, and said Mitchell would go to the Middle East as soon as possible.
Mitchell will try to ensure that an informal ceasefire between Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas in the Gaza Strip becomes durable and sustainable, Obama added.
One day earlier, Obama made telephone calls to Washington’s long-standing allies in the Middle East – Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and King Abdullah of Jordan.
The conservative Arab governments saw the calls as an affirmation of their privileged status — another sign that Obama is sticking to traditional approaches.
"It took two longs days before Obama dispelled any notions of a change in US Middle East policy," said As’ad Abu Khalil, Lebanese-born and pro-Palestinian professor of political science at California State Univerity.
"Obama’s speech was quite something. It was like sprinkling sulphuric acid on the wounds of the children in Gaza," he added.
But Obama’s diplomatic activism and promises of engagement on Arab-Israeli conflicts does at least address one of the conservatives’ main grievances about former President George W. Bush — that he ignored the conflict for too long and never put his full weight behind any Middle East peace plan.
A senior member of the Saudi ruling family, Prince Turki al-Faisal, said Bush had left "a sickening legacy" in the Middle East and had contributed through arrogance to Israel’s slaughter of innocent people in Gaza over the past month.
"If the United States wants to continue playing a leadership role in the Middle East and keep its strategic alliances intact … it will have to revise drastically its policies vis a vis Israel and Palestine," he added.
Jamal Khashoggi, editor of the Saudi newspaper al-Watan, said the Saudi government was still optimistic about Obama, whom it sees as a possible friend to the Muslim world.
"Even the few Saudi officials who liked Bush were disappointed with him in the last two years," he added.
Maverick Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi took the opportunity of Obama’s advent to refloat his own pet proposal — that Israelis and Palestinians live together in one state.
Prince Turki, a nephew of King Abdullah and a former ambassador to Washington, said Washington should back the Arab peace initiative of 2002, which offers Israel peace and normal relations in return for withdrawal to its 1967 borders.
In his policy statement on Thursday, Obama said the Arab peace offer contained what he called constructive elements.
But he then called on Arab governments to carry out their half of the bargain — "taking steps towards normalising relations with Israel" — without suggesting that Israel should meet the parallel Arab demand for territorial withdrawal.
Obama gave full backing to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and his Western-backed prime minister, ignoring the political weight of Hamas and other groups opposed to Abbas.
He repeated the controversial conditions which the Quartet of external powers in 2006 for dealing with Hamas — recognising Israel, renouncing violence and accepting previous Israeli-Palestinian agreements.
Some analysts had speculated that Obama might bring a new approach to dealings with Hamas and other Middle East forces which retain the right to armed struggle against Israel.
Obama even linked ending the Israeli and Egyptian blockade of Gaza — one of the roots of the recent fighting — to restoring Abbas’s control of Gaza’s borders. That could perpetuate the present blockade for months or years to come.
U.S. reconstruction aid for Gaza will also be channelled exclusively through Abbas, who has no control over Gaza.
The new president followed the traditional US approach of relying on Egypt to mediate between Israel and Hamas and to stop Hamas in Gaza receiving weapons through smuggling.
But Egypt failed to bring Hamas and Israel together on an agreed ceasefire and Israel says that Cairo’s anti-smuggling efforts along the Gaza-Egypt border fall far short.
Hamas dismissed Obama’s first venture into Middle East policy making as more of the same failed U.S. strategy.
"It seems Obama is trying to repeat the same mistakes that George Bush made without taking into consideration Bush’s experience that resulted in the explosion of the region," the Hamas representative in Lebanon, Osama Hamdan, told Al Jazeera.
The pro-Syrian Lebanese newspaper As-Safir added: "The new American President inspired by Bush’s positions … Obama continues the Israeli war on the Palestinian people."
"(Obama) disappointed many hopes set on his balance and moderate views towards the Arab-Israeli conflict, since his positions allows Israel to continue what it began in its last war on Gaza," the newspaper added. (Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy in Beirut and Riyadh newsroom; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)