The Arab and Muslim worlds see the United States as an imperial power concerned only with protecting its own interests―even when it harms the interests of other nations in the region― and ready to do so by force if necessary. Many surveys have shown that the majority of people in the region view the United States to be an ally of the despotic Arab regimes, while caring little for the suffering of the average Arab. Above all, for the past sixty years, the United States has stood firmly by Israel’s side, throwing its weight behind Israel’s expansionist projects on Arab lands and providing it with unlimited support. The U.S. alliance with Arab dictatorships and its blind support for Israel are the constituent elements of the paradigm through which Arabs perceive the United States. This perception has deteriorated in recent years, resulting in unprecedented levels of anti-Americanism. For the public, any understanding or analysis of U.S. policies in the region is explained through this double paradigm. Every new direction and every new U.S. move or policy is interpreted as directly or indirectly aiming to strengthen autocratic regimes or to support Israel at the expense of the rights of Arabs and Palestinians.
In fact, I believe that the U.S. pro-Israel stance outweighs its alliance with regional dictators in influencing Arab perceptions. Therefore, the toppling of Saddam Hussein was not viewed by many in the Arab world as regime change, but as an imperialist war intended to gain control of Iraq’s oil and to protect Israel’s security by destroying the most important Arab military power. Consequently, any long-term U.S. policy to change Arab and Muslim public perceptions of the United States should place a just resolution of the Palestinian issue at the top of its priorities. Otherwise, any move, policy, or war by the United States will be seen through the aforementioned paradigm, even if it is based on a moral pretext such as the removal of a dictator as brutal as Saddam Hussein.
A settlement that restores the basic rights of Palestinians through the unanimously approved two-state solution, UN Security Council resolutions, and the Arab initiative is not impossible to achieve. All the new administration has to do is build on what outgoing Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said recently in a rare moment of candor: there will be no peace without an Israeli pullout from most if not all Palestinian land occupied in 1967, including East Jerusalem. If the official U.S. position remains to the right of Israel’s official position, as it was under the Bush administration, then Washington should expect more public hostility and growing Islamic fundamentalism and radicalism in the Arab World.
If the Obama administration wants to serve U.S. interests in the region and transform its image from that of an ally of dictators to that of a friend of the masses, then it has to avoid mimicking previous administrations and dispel one of the most common myths surrounding the Arab and Muslim conflict: that the Israeli–Palestinian conflict is too complicated and impossible to resolve. This myth is untrue, especially after the Palestinians (and Arabs before them) have agreed since 1988 to a two-state solution in accordance with UN resolutions—this decision was taken by the Palestinian National Council in Algiers. These resolutions were drafted by the United States and Western powers in order to protect the security of Israel and its interests and have now ironically become a basic Arab and Palestinian demand. What is absent is the political will, particularly on the U.S. side.
One of the missteps the Obama administration must avoid is delaying any serious interest in the Palestinian issue until the second term of a new presidency—this has almost become a tradition for recent U.S. presidents. Every U.S. president seeks re-election, and re-election requires him stay on the good side of the powerful Jewish lobby. Palestinians and Arabs know and despise this fact, which was the case for both presidents Clinton and Bush. This policy only feeds animosity toward the U.S. in the region because belated peace efforts lack serious motivation and are often conducted under time pressure. At the same time, one should not be naïve and assume that Obama is not aiming for re-election. But there is now a new development that both Obama and the Arabs could exploit to push the Palestinian issue to the forefront during Obama’s first term: the global financial and economic crisis centered on the United States.
This global crisis represents the top priority for Obama both on the national and international levels and is likely to dominate the first few months of his term. There is widespread agreement that to address the crisis, the United States needs a collective effort by all influential economic powers in the world. Recently the West has been showing special interest in the Arab world, in particular the Gulf. The aim is to attract liquid capital and investments to make up for the staggering losses in the U.S. and Western stock markets and to revive the global economic and financial cycle. Obama could use this card—assuming good intentions on his part—to persuade Jewish lobbies and Israeli leaders of the need to trade a quick move towards resolving the Palestinian issue for Arab financial intervention. More importantly, Arab countries should be courageous and conscientious enough to demand this bargain—Arab assistance in exchange for Palestine.
The fear remains, possibly exaggerated but not unfounded, that the new administration will continue to display the excessively arrogant attitude of the outgoing one, embodied in its unilateral policies. The Bush administration was unilateral in order to make up for the absence of political capital. The Obama administration has an excess of political capital; this could create another type of arrogance, based on the fact that the administration has different priorities and unprecedented popular and international support. The outgoing administration made the unilateral decision to shelve the Palestinian issue because it did not see it as pressing. The incoming administration might postpone any involvement counting on the world’s understanding of the presence of other pressing priorities. In either case, the end result would be the same.
Khaled Hroub, Palestinian-Jordanian academic, Cambridge University.