No Movement on the Middle East Peace Process
The second key area in which President Obama’s policy direction is analyzed in the GCC states is his position on the Arab-Israeli conflict. Among all GCC leaders and opinion makers, the issue of the
Arab-Israeli conflict is consistently identified as the key to solving all other problems in the region. At the outset, President Obama’s stance on the Palestinian question—particularly his adamant stand against the radical Israeli policies of grabbing the Palestinian lands of Jerusalem and the continuation of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories—earned him much praise throughout the Arab and Muslim world. The appointment of George Mitchell as special envoy to the peace process was also greeted positively given that here was an Arab-American with a solid reputation for resolving seemingly intractable problems.
That a change in attitude on the Arab-Israeli conflict was required was something that was repeatedly conveyed to the new administration by the GCC states at the outset of the Obama term. Prince Turki Al-Faisal, the former Saudi ambassador to the United States, underlined that a failure to alter the policies would have a negative impact on the relations between the GCC states and the United States.22 The kingdom had over the years grown increasingly frustrated with the unwillingness of the United States to get too closely involved in the peace process between Israel and its Arab neighbors. For example, following a press conference with President Bush in the summer of 2001 about the Israeli-Palestinian peace process (which he viewed as completely one-sided), then Saudi crown prince Abdullah instructed the Saudi ambassador to the United States, Prince Bandar bin Sultan bin Abdulaziz al-Saud, to tell the U.S. administration that Saudi Arabia would from now on go its own way and would no longer try to consider American strategic interests in the region. The ambassador was instructed to cut off any further discussion between the two countries, according to a report in the Washington Post2 Such frank talk would continue with the Obama administration.
The initial momentum coming out of Washington would soon run into problems, and from a GCC perspective, it was Israeli intransigence once again that would confront the new administration. The question was whether President Obama would be ready to challenge the United States’ staunch ally in order to achieve progress. Similar to the case of the Iranian nuclear issue, the region would, however, find itself once again disappointed that Washington would be seen as unready to tackle the tough issues; rather, it appeared to succumb to the hard-line stance of the Israelis by watering down many of its own initial rhetoric and ideas. The decision by Israel’s Netanyahu government to announce additional settlement construction during the visit of U.S. vice president Joe Biden in March 2010 was the highlight of a year that had seen the United States being thwarted again and again by Israel in its attempt to reintroduce momentum into the stalled peace process. That Washington would back off each time Israel voiced its concerns or opposition did not inspire much confidence in the GCC states that a new approach was seriously being fashioned.
In that context, the new administration’s requests for overtures by the GCC states toward Israel as a way to inspire confidence building were rejected out of hand. The GCC states, and Saudi Arabia in particular, had already been left disappointed by the rather lukewarm support that the King Abdullah Peace Initiative on resolving the Arab-Israeli issue had received when it was first launched in 2002. There was a feeling that the initiative was never really taken seriously by Washington and therefore had not been pushed sufficiently with the Israelis. Rather than making it the centerpiece of a new diplomatic push, Secretary Clinton would refer to the peace plan merely as an “important element” in the overall complexity of restarting Arab- Israeli negotiations. Moreover, Saudi Arabia was unhappy because the kingdom had pushed the plan throughout the Middle East and had gotten the Arab League to adopt it as a genuine offering to the Israelis. In the end, there would be very little to show for this effort.
The result was that when President Obama visited Riyadh in June 2009 to seek some additional positive overtures from Saudi Arabia and the GCC, King Abdullah told him that it was “completely unrealistic” to expect concessions from Riyadh until the Arab Peace Plan was accepted and while settlement activity continued.24 At the end of July 2009, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud, would make the Saudi position very clear: “Temporary security and confidence-building measures will not bring peace. What is required is a comprehensive approach that defines the final outcome at the outset and launches into negotiations over final status issues.”25
From a Saudi perspective, the interim steps that had defined the process during the Clinton and Bush years had produced no results, and therefore, this mistake was not to be repeated.
Other issues throughout the first 18 months of the Obama presidency would also suggest that very little concerted and concrete action could be expected. Two examples underlined the perception in the Gulf that Middle East policy direction in Washington was firmly in the hands of the Israeli lobby and the supporters of Israel. In September 2009, Justice Richard Goldstone presented the UN fact-finding report on Israel’s December 2008 military assault on the Gaza Strip to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva. He urged the council and the international community as a whole to put an end to impunity for violations of international law in Israel and the Occupied Palestinian Territory, but the report initially received only lukewarm support in Washington. In fact, whereas the international community generally agreed with the report’s conclusion, the U.S. tentativeness turned to outright opposition. The 2009 Human Rights Report of the U.S. Department of State “widely criticized” the report for “methodological failings, legal and factual errors, falsehoods, and for devoting insufficient attention to the asymmetrical nature of the conflict.”26 This was followed by a vote in the U.S. House of Representatives that rejected the report as “irredeemably biased” and called on President Obama to maintain his opposition to the findings.27 As far as the GCC states were concerned, this was another missed opportunity for the new administration to show a more nuanced approach to the issue of Gaza, especially considering that the Israeli action had provoked severe outrage throughout the Middle East and the Gulf.
The second issue was the failure of President Obama to clearly criticize the Israeli attack on a flotilla of aid ships trying to break through the blockade of the Gaza Strip in May 2010, which resulted in several deaths. Again, although Israel was widely condemned by the international community, including by a strong statement from the EU, the response from Washington was highly muted, simply regretting the loss of life in the incident and calling on Israel to thoroughly investigate it.28 This was seen in the Arab Gulf capitals as nothing more than an attempt to buy time and allow for the furor over the crisis to abate. Given also that this happened a year and a half into the Obama presidency confirmed the notion that virtually nothing had changed in Washington.
The bottom line for the Arab Gulf was that the United States has not changed its policies on the Arab-Israeli conflict over the past four decades, and there was no confidence that the United States would ever exert sufficient pressure on Israel to come to an agreement, despite the fact that the outlines of an eventual accord are known to everyone and have been around for some time. Although the land-for-peace plan had been formally accepted by the Arab world at one stage, now it was Washington, in addition to Israel, that was rejecting it. From a Gulf perspective, every U.S. administration in the past four decades had, for whatever reason, always extended Israel the benefit of the doubt, with the result that the Arabs were classified as the bad guys and Israel as the one seeking peace. And with the United States still adopting a cold war mentality, in which there exist only absolute winners and losers, Washington had succumbed to the Israeli logic.