Arab world dismayed by Obama's silence
President-elect Obama's silence on the weeklong conflict in Gaza is drawing criticism among Arabs who have grown skeptical about hopes that...
BEIRUT — President-elect Obama's silence on the weeklong conflict in Gaza is drawing criticism among Arabs who have grown skeptical about hopes that his administration will break with the Mideast policies of the Bush era.
Obama, who is moving to Washington, D.C., this weekend, was on vacation in Hawaii when the crisis erupted and has made no statements, either about Israel's bombing of Gaza or Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel. His aides say that he does not wish to address foreign-policy issues in any way that could send "confusing signals" about U.S. policy as long as President Bush is in office.
"President-elect Obama is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza, but there is one president at a time," said Brooke Anderson, chief national security spokeswoman for the Obama transition team.
Arab commentators maintain, however, that Obama did comment on foreign affairs when he issued a statement condemning the terrorist attacks in Mumbai and that he has given news conferences outlining his economic proposals.
They suggest that his refusal to speak out on Gaza — where more than 400 Palestinians have died in the Israeli airstrikes, compared with four Israeli deaths from the rockets — implies indifference to the Palestinians or even complicity with Israel's bombing campaign.
Contrast in images
The satellite TV network Al-Jazeera contrasted footage of Obama wearing shorts and playing golf in Hawaii with scenes of the carnage in Gaza, by way of highlighting what it called "the deafening silence from the Obama team."
"People recall his campaign slogan of change and hoped that it would apply to the Palestinian situation," said Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi. "So they look at his silence as a negative sign. They think he is condoning what happened in Gaza because he's not expressing any opinion.
"If he does not want to talk politics yet, at least he could address the humanitarian suffering taking place," Kamhawi added. "He did not even send one signal to the people of this region that he is not happy with what is happening."
In a July interview with The New York Times, Obama said he did not think that "any country would find it acceptable to have missiles raining down on the heads of citizens.
"If somebody was sending rockets into my house where my two daughters sleep at night, I'm going to do everything in my power to stop that," he said. "And I would expect Israelis to do the same thing."
As for talking with Hamas, Obama told the Times that it was "very hard to negotiate with a group that is not representative of a nation state, does not recognize your right to exist, has consistently used terror as a weapon, and is deeply influenced by other countries."
It is not only the Arab world that has noticed the president-elect's silence: At a gathering of celebrities to condemn Israel's assault in London on Friday, speakers called on Obama to speak out.
Such calls underscore the challenge confronting a president-elect who has promised to deliver change and who may now face unrealistically high expectations as to how far that change will go.
Nowhere is that challenge greater than in the Muslim world, where the policies of the Bush administration have pushed opinions of America to an all-time low.
Obama has said it is one of his priorities to restore America's image among Muslims. But Arabs enthusiastic about the departure of Bush say they have already been disappointed by some of Obama's statements on Israel, and by his appointments of key aides whom they identify with pro-Israeli policies, such as his incoming chief of staff, Rahm Emanuel, and nominee for secretary of state, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton.
"His current silence falls into the pattern of disappointment so far," said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. "Most people understand that the president-elect can't take issue with what the current president is saying, but it certainly is a disappointment."
Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, said Obama's silence suggested he was fearful of offending Israel, just as past U.S. presidents have been.
But he said he understood that it would be difficult for Obama to speak out on Gaza now.
"If he talks against the Palestinians, he will lose any chance before he has even started," he said. "And if he talks against the Israelis, this will not help him."
Conflict still raging
With the conflict still raging and the outcome uncertain, it is hard to know what Obama could say to make a difference, beyond assuaging Arab sensitivities to the perceived past indifference of the U.S. to the suffering of Palestinians.
Arabs believe Israel took advantage of the transition in the U.S. to launch its offensive, knowing that Bush would be unlikely to raise any objections.
By the time Obama takes office Jan. 20, the bombardment is likely to be over and the Palestinians in such disarray that the prospects for a viable Middle East peace process will be in tatters, analysts say.
But that does not stop Arabs from wishing Obama would do more.
"We want him to say something at least to stop the bloodshed," said Suhail Natour, a Palestinian activist who lives in the Mar Elias Palestinian refugee camp in Beirut. "Waiting until the 20th, with the bloodshed continuing, I don't think is an acceptable way of confirming a new policy in the Middle East. Silence on this means complicity."
Information from The New York Times is included in this report.
Copyright © 2009 The Seattle Times Company
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