WASHINGTON – Barack Obama inspired millions of Americans to hope for something better during the 2008 election season. Now,many Egyptians see Obama as a way to change affairs in their own backyard – between Israel and Palestine.
“Obama is probably the first American president to decide that he is going to solve the conflict,” said Andel Moneim Said,chairman of the board of Al-Ahram Newspaper in Cairo, Egypt. Al-Ahram's content is controlled by the Egyptian Ministry of Information.
Said described the opportunity in what he calls “the Obama moment” for Arab-Israeli peace and detailed how Egypt and the United States differ in their approach to the situation during a discussion Thursday at the Middle East Institute. Said's talk precedes Tuesday's meeting between Obama and Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.
Mubarak and Obama are expected to discuss Arab-Israeli peace and combating extremism,according to an Aug. 3 statement from Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. It will be Mubarak's first visit to the U.S. since 2004 due to a tense relationship with President George W. Bush.
Said said Israelis,Palestinians and Arab states must take advantage of Obama's willingness to broker peace and his emphasis on cultural interaction instead of military might. Otherwise,Said said the lull in violence between Israelis and Palestinians won't last.
“If we don't make peace,we make war,” he said.
Peace talks should take on an even greater urgency due to the deteriorating security situation in the Middle East since the Sept. 11 attacks,he added. Iraq has become a failed state due to the 2003 United States invasion,and Sudan and Yemen have been greatly weakened,with Yemen threatening to split into two parts as it was before 1991.
“We are facing a situation that we have never faced before,” he said.
He said he worries that the failed and failing states will breed Islamic militants,making a resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict all the more urgent.
The United States and Egypt disagree,however,on how to bring about peace.
Egypt believes the general outline for an agreement between Israel and Palestine already exists. Egypt would like see Obama lay out a comprehensive peace plan within the next two months that includes moving rapidly to negotiate the final status issues,Said said.
Final status issues include Jerusalem,the right of return for Palestinian refugees,the size and sovereignty of a Palestinian state and control of water resources.
Alternatively,the United States wishes to build confidence between Israelis and Palestinians through smaller agreements on suspending the construction of Israeli settlements in Palestinian territory and normalizing relations between Israel and Arab states. Said said the United States wants the same comprehensive peace as Egypt but doesn't believe the parties are ready for final status talks.
Said said he worries that smaller agreements won't be enough to sustain momentum toward a broader peace.
“All confidence-building does is lead to a failure in confidence,” he said.
In addition,Israeli and Arab actors opposed to peace will use these smaller issues to divert attention and stall negotiation on more meaningful issues. In particular,Said said that Israel has little reason to negotiate now because things are peaceful and its economy is strong.
“If the Obama moment is used,Israel will be faced with lots of hard choices,” he said. “The Israeli strategy is figuring out how to pass the Obama moment.”
At the same time,though,Said said most Israelis recognize that the current lull in violence won't last without a comprehensive agreement. Therefore,he advocates for truly capitalizing on the Obama moment.
“Once you don't seize the moment,then there is war,” he said.