The birth of a “new beginning” with the Muslim world, hoped as a new beginning for the elusive peace process
It was no secret that improving ties with the Muslim world was to become a core component of US President Barack Obama’s new administration. On 4th June president Obama delivered his highly anticipated speech at Cairo University, where a “new beginning” for ties with the Muslim world based on “mutual interest and mutual respect” took on strong emphasis. A strong symbol of this new start is the peace process between the Israel and the Palestinians and the establishment of a Palestinian state. However, as we have seen many times before, emotive words and real action and tough decision making do not always translate to the same thing.
Furthermore, by looking at the greater whole of the Middle East, will parts such as Kurdistan miss out?
One of the greatest historical problems in the Middle East has been the establishment of elusive peace between Israel and the Palestinians that has become almost symbolic of the US relationship with the Muslim world. Obama’s seemingly new tough approach with Israel signalled a new phase in the peace process. Successfully achieving peace between the Jews and Arabs and ultimately the establishment of a Palestinian state may well prove to be the platform on which Obama is judged at the end of his term.
The speech was refreshing, warm and conciliatory. Any speech that even grabs the mood and attention of customary US nemesis, speaks volumes about the influence and importance of the speech. However, deep and powerful rhetoric is by no means a measure on how such broad goals will be achieved in reality.
New ties with the Muslim world
A frequent theme of Obama’s speech was his emphasis on the positivity and role of Islam on the global stage. He pointed out the significance of Islam on contemporary history and human development and indeed the part that Islam has played in America’s history, while referring to civilisations “debt” to Islam.
Relations with the Islamic world under George W. Bush and indeed before that became strained and introduced dangerous levels of animosity and mistrust. The perception of the US in the last several years has been tarnished by its foreign policy, with many Middle Eastern views portraying the US as “anti-Islamist”.
Obama downplayed such beliefs of an ideological clash and stated “America and Islam are not exclusive, and need not be in competition. Instead, they overlap, and share common principles – principles of justice and progress; tolerance and the dignity of all human beings.” Obama was evidently keen to eradicate somewhat negative stereotypes that surround both Islam and the US, and the cycle of distrust that had undermined common ties.
Obama frequently highlighted a great respect for Islam while aiming to show that there was more common ground than differences.
The whole is greater than the sum of the parts
From the outset, Obama has clearly been keen to reach out to the greater Middle East. A common theme of his tenure as president is that the US will aim to “listen rather than dictate” to the Muslims.
Indeed, the Middle East is as much of an interlinked web as ever, and no solution or stability in any one country will achieve the greater goals of the region.
Peace and success in the Middle East can not be achieved without a broad consensus amongst the social mosaic of the region. The American experience in Iraq and Afghanistan has shown that individual achievements will only ever be hampered by greater obstacles in the surrounding environment.
More importantly, US relations in the Middle East have reached a vicious and perilous cycle, which Obama has been clearly intent on breaking.
Obama tried to win the hearts of the Islamic audiences by making references to texts from the Quran, and by emphasising that with a “proud tradition of tolerance”, the positive role that Islam plays in solutions rather than as a source of problems.
Ties with Israel and Palestinians
In his quest to turn a new page with the greater Muslim world, there can perhaps be no greater starting point than resolving the historical Palestinian dilemma.
Peace between Israel and the Palestinians formed a core focus of the Bush era, however, the much-hyped peace road map never really started.
Obama speech echoed a neutral stance with regards to the present Israeli-Palestinian standoff. The Islamic view of America has long been defined by the strong historical support of the Jews, seemingly at the expense of Arab suffering and the deprivation of Palestinian rights.
This notion has only served to add to the view that US foreign policy was hypocritical and unequivocal.
In his keynote speech, Obama once again reaffirmed the strong bond between the US and Israel, which is “…based upon cultural and historical ties, and the recognition that the aspiration for a Jewish homeland is rooted in a tragic history that cannot be denied.” However, Obama was clearly keen to ensure that Palestinian rights and sufferings were treated on equal footing, describing the situation of the Palestinians as “intolerable”, who he believes “endure the daily humiliations – large and small – that come with occupation. ”
Shifting US ties with Israel?
Many have pointed to a shift in US policy towards Israel. However, this policy is needed if the overall “reach out” of his administration to the Muslims is to be taking seriously.
It remains to be seen how much political or public pressure, the US government is willing to place on their historical ally in the region.
US Middle East envoy George Mitchell, visiting Israeli and Palestinian leaders on the back of Obama’s speech, reiterated that the US views a two-state solution as the “only viable political solution” to the conflict.
A key note of Obama speech on the peace process was the firm need to halt all Israeli settlement building activity in the occupied West Bank, which is deemed illegal under International law.
This caused a potential confrontation with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu who previously vowed to at least to accommodate “natural growth” building in the settlements. Furthermore, Netanyahu and his cabinet have appeared reserved to endorse the principle of a Palestinian state in public, much to the contrary of American support to the idea.
Netanyahu is due to deliver a key speech later this week, which will go a long way to underlining the path that his Israeli government will pursue. Either way, the Israeli government will need to make concessions in terms of cabinet personnel or policy, as they realign with the new realities in Washington.
Many in Israel are evidently concerned about the new shift of support from the US government. With Obama placing equal focus on both the Israelis and Palestinians, many will now be looking at the political movements and initiatives shown in each camp. On the back of the historical speech by Obama, there is now a danger for either side to be singled out depending on the steps they undertake.
Both the Israelis and Palestinians have been cautiously warm to the renewed efforts called for in Obama’s speech.
Moreover, Israel may need to make greater concessions not just in the face of US pressure, but also in their quest to win greater endorsement from the Arab world and particularly support against the growing Iranian nuclear threat.
The US has been keen to emphasise to their Israeli counterparts that the resolution of the Iranian nuclear issue must come hand-in-hand with the peace process between the Israelis and Palestinians. What is certain is that no side can act against the Tehran government without a broad support of the greater Middle East.
Any Israeli unilateral action on Iran, as much as its nuclear programme is also feared by many Arab regimes in the region, would go a long way to ensuring further isolation of Israel.
The need for tough measures
For Obama’s brave new policies to become a reality, the US government must go beyond strong rhetoric and mixed this up with tough action and decisions.
For example, while the US have been insistent that no Israeli settlement building continues, what will they do if Israeli continues their justification of further construction in one form or another? Furthermore, the US should be clear on their exact policy regarding settlement building, so that there is no doubt or misinterpretation to suit one side. Does opposition to settlement building mean future settlement expansions or the presence of these settlements altogether?
In his speech, Obama was signalling the prospects of a new definition of ties with Hamas, if Hamas refuses to change its policy towards Israel and does not become an apart of a new unity Palestinian government, then how will the US react to the entity that affectively rules the Gaza strip?
If the peace process goes down a productive and positive path, then the stance of the US will look after itself, however, such similar paths in the past have seldom followed such positive motions. The position of the US will come under much scrutiny, if key differences emerge between Israel and the Palestinians or if indeed outright violence erupts again.
Obama is correct in that no ideology or principle, such as democracy can or should be imposed on a nation. It is indeed down to the real will of a nation, on what they choose to adopt or how they want to be ruled.
By that token, Israelis and Palestinians must make the real concessions and choose what kind of a future they want, but obviously the right US policy has great bearings on the decisions and directions taking by each nation. One thing that is certain is that the current status-quo will serve no side.
All sides, particularly Israel must realise that peace measures should not just be political, more opportunities and economic progression in the Palestinian territories will be a major influence to sway Palestinian sentiments.
The dangers for the Kurds
One side that has clearly benefited from the US foreign policy of recent years are the Kurds. A pro-American, democratic and secular nation does not come around too often and the US and Kurds have developed positive ties. However, many Kurds have grown disillusioned at lack of US support or appreciation of these bonds.
Clearly, when one takes a greater view of a subject matter, certain components that make up key parts of the whole, may miss out.
Too often in the past, the US has neglected so-called “smaller” actors to attain their bigger strategic goals with the perceived more dominant powers in the region.
The US must not forget that that as the fourth largest ethnic group in the Middle East, the Kurds deserve recognition as a firm actor in the region and to be credited for their recent gains, their path towards prosperity and democratisation.
Too often reach-outs in the Middle East have been represented by Jews and Arabs. Reach out to the Muslim world, includes all such parties, including Kurdistan, which is after all a predominantly Muslim nation.
However, there is an inherent fear that the US can not keep all sides happy, which is next to impossible and as a result the Kurds have to be careful no to over rely on fickle foreign policies in the region, be it from the US or neighbouring countries.
By keeping the “major” parties happy in the Middle East, the US may well choose to do this at the expense of others. The Kurds have to ensure that they achieve self-sufficiency for their experience and reinforce their region based on a future that is not necessarily dependent on Western powers whose support is conditional and reserved at the best of times.
Support against extremism
Clearly, the war of the modern era has been the battle against terrorism and extremism. This new battlefield is one that is unconventional and high-impact. As the last several years have highlighted, it is one war that the might of ones military alone can not win in the long-term.
The battle against fanaticism and fundamentalist can be won on ideological grounds alone, by affectively winning the hearts and minds of the populations or uprooting the support base of these elements.
In Palestinian, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and Afghanistan, it is indeed that battle against extremism that has handicapped reconstruction, social advancement and peace. In any of these cases, US can not win these “battles” by merely imposing their ideology or military might. In other words, they strongly need the support of the greater Muslim “moderates” to establish long-lasting peace.
It is only with the establishment of a strong moderate support base, that the extremists can then be uprooted. The previous cycle of animosity and alienation between the US and Muslim powers, further distanced such moderates and indirectly encouraged support for more radical elements.
Obama was quick to emphasis that violence is not a part of Islam. In the case of Palestine, Obama stated that violence was a “dead end” and that “resistance through violence and killing is wrong and does not succeed”.
Obama, although stating that America was not at war with Islam, openly warned that the US would continue to confront extremists that threatened its security. This is a clear reminder that the US has not necessarily gone soft on its determination to battle radicals or employing a complete shift in foreign policy, particularly against elements like the Taliban in Afghanistan or the regime in Tehran.