Cool Reaction in the Mideast to Obama’s Nobel Prize

Friday’s Nobel Peace Prize award to President Barack Obama momentarily achieved that rare accord among the Middle East’s feuding factions that has for so long been the holy grail of peacemakers. While the region’s leaders, particularly those inclined to stay onside with the U.S., dutifully issued boilerplate acclamations, most of their citizens were united in a common skepticism — President Obama has raised expectations in his outreach to the Muslim world and his prioritization of settling the Israel-Palestine conflict, but thus far he has little progress to show for his efforts.

“There are few leaders who have managed to change the atmosphere in the world in such a short time,” said Israeli President Shimon Peres. Chief Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat made sure to convey his side’s concerns in his own message congratulating Obama: “We hope that he will be able to achieve peace in the Middle East and achieve Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 border and establish an independent state on 1967 borders with Jerusalem as its capital.” But beneath the veneer of formal congratulations, the Obama Nobel award is being viewed as an as yet undeserved laurel, as an embarrassment, by some even as an impediment to a sustainable peace.

Any excitement in the Islamic world that might have been aroused by the U.S.’s electing its first President with a partly Muslim family background has long since passed. Even then, the more predominant view had been a jaded one, which held that no matter who is in the White House, America’s pro-Israeli policies always stay the same. But expectations were raised after Obama’s Cairo speech gave as much respect to Palestinian grievances and aspirations as to the Israeli perspective. Still, the Arab and Muslim worlds are waiting for Obama to deliver on those expectations. And they have been disappointed by the President’s backing down from the demand that Israeli halt all settlement activity on territory conquered in 1967. That disappointment was compounded last week when Washington leaned on Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas to squelch efforts to get the Security Council to act on a U.N. report that accused Israel (and Hamas) of committing war crimes during January’s fighting in Gaza. Indeed, Israel is openly resisting Obama’s efforts to restart final-status peace talks on the key conflict issues, such as the borders of a Palestinian state, the sharing of Jerusalem and the fate of Palestinian refugees. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has insisted that his government won’t negotiate about Jerusalem or refugees, and his Foreign Minister, Avigdor Lieberman, was revealed this week to have warned that any attempt to reach a final peace agreement “in the coming years” was doomed to fail and that the focus should instead be on managing the conflict.

Hardly surprising, then, that Arab opinionmakers deemed the Nobel award premature. “This is too early. He is still living off slogans,” says Dawoud Ibrahim, the producer of Al Hadath, a political news show on the Lebanese Broadcasting Channel. “People spend years working for peace,” says Layal Abou Rahal, an editor at the Kuwaiti newspaper Al Jarida. “What did he do? Let’s imagine he will in fact help in the peace process between Israelis and Palestinians. What will they give him as a reward then?”

For their part, Israelis are wary that they will be asked to pay a price for America’s foreign-policy blunders in Iraq and Afghanistan, in the form of a regional settlement unfavorable to the Jewish state. Some polls show that only 4% of Israelis think Obama is “pro-Israeli.” Bucking the trend of Israeli leaders’ avoidance of confrontations with the White House, Netanyahu has seen his popularity spike as a result of his defiance of U.S. demands for a complete settlement freeze.

The Nobel award has done nothing to assuage Israeli suspicions. Knesset Chairman Reuven Rivlin said he thought it was “very strange” that Obama had won the award and feared that the President would use it as an opportunity to force Israel into a peace deal. Bloggers have been harsher. “Thank you Nobel Prize Committee for awarding the most ridiculous Nobel Prize for Peace since 1994, when you awarded one to the terrorist leader Yasser Arafat,” wrote blogger Dahlia, a student living in Israel. “Well done and kudos!”

But one unexpected note of optimism came from Syria, a country that is officially at war with Israel and was put in the diplomatic doghouse by the Bush Administration over its positions on Iraq, Lebanon, Palestinian militant groups and Iran. Syria has warmed to the Obama Administration’s offer of engagement and has welcomed a series of U.S. diplomatic delegations for talks about peace with Israel and cooperation with American goals in Iraq. “I believe Obama is working hard for peace,” Muhammad Habash, a Syrian member of parliament and the director of the Islamic Studies Center in Damascus, told the Wall Street Journal. “We in Syria believe that Obama’s initiatives have been suitable and that Syria is now witnessing important steps to correct the relationship with the United States. I believe everyone here will be very happy for Obama.”

— With reporting by Rita Barotta / Beirut

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