At an event entitled “Beyond Arab Poll Results” a panel consisting of Dr. Shibley Telhami and Amjad Atallah reflected on the general discontent in the Arab world for President Obama and his policies, and discussed the 2010 Arab Public Opinion Poll recently released by the Brookings Institute. They concluded that the upcoming negotiations between Israel and Palestine, to be conducted in Washington, DC, are different than those of the past because of one unavoidable fact: if the U.S. cannot mitigate a peace solution in the near future, it may well have lost its opportunity to play a role in the ongoing conflict. The panel met at the New America Foundation and addressed a room packed to the brim with interested Washingtonians.
“There is an assumption,” said Dr. Shibley Telhami, the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland and nonresident senior fellow at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at Brookings, “if this administration cannot do it, who can?” Dr. Telhami’s comments stem from the aggressive efforts made by the Obama administration to bring both sides back to the table for peace talks. The Brookings poll offers a small ray of hope on the upcoming talks, the most significant being overwhelming support on both sides of the issue, as well as throughout the Arab world, for a two-state solution.
Despite these efforts, many obstacles stand in the way of a peaceful resolution. “To a large extent,” Telhami continued, “…Washington misinterpreted how Arabs and Muslims saw Obama.” Most of the hype arose after the famed Cairo speech, where he extended his hand to the Muslim world at large. That same speech has been the subject of much political fodder in the United States, as controversy over the proposed Islamic center at Ground Zero (I would link that, but if you haven’t heard about it the odds that you’re reading this are very small). The perception of the United States in the wake of the controversy, and the “Islamophobia” being proliferated by the right, may lessen the U.S. in the eyes of Arabs, and consequently hinder its ability to form a legitimate solution. Additionally, the lack of innovation on Obama’s part, as well as the perceived kowtowing to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, has hurt his image in the Arab world, and conversely may hinder negotiations.
"[He] attempted to take the corpse over the finish line," said Atallah, who is the co-director of the New America Foundation’s Middle East Task Force. He was speaking in reference to the Obama administration’s proposed solutions, which are virtually unchanged from those introduced by the Oslo accord in 1993. In regards to the possible failure to reach an agreement centered on U.S. mediation, he said Israeli and Palestinian leaders “need a Plan B.”
Finally, Netanyahu‘s loyalty to his conservative Likud party may prevent him from making concessions necessary for peace, however, Telhami seemed to think party ties may not play a significant role. Solutions that may seem unpopular at the time often gain approval after they have been adopted. “If you build an agreement,” he said, “they will come.”