CAIRO (Reuters) - U.S. President-elect Barack Obama, with his silence on Israel’s attacks in Gaza, has confirmed Arab expectations that foreign policy changes will come small and slow when he moves into the White House next month.
On the fourth day of Israeli air strikes which have killed more than 380 people in Gaza, the U.S. President-elect has yet to take a position, though he spoke out after militants’ attacks in Mumbai and has made detailed statements on the U.S. economy.
“He wants to be cautious and I think he will remain cautious because the Arab-Israeli conflict is not one of his priorities,” said Hassan Nafaa, an Egyptian political scientist and secretary-general of the Arab Thought Forum in Amman.
“Obama’s position is very precarious. The Jewish lobby warned against his election, so he has chosen to remain silent (on Gaza),” added Hilal Khashan, a professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
“If Obama continues to remain silent ... his silence will be seen and will have the operational effect of providing an endorsement for Israel’s war on Gaza,” said Paul Woodward of Conflicts Forum, an organization aimed at changing Western policy toward Islamist movements such as Hamas.
The Arab world was largely enthusiastic about Obama’s election victory in November, in the belief that a fresh face in the White House must be better than outgoing President George W. Bush, who invaded Iraq and gave strong support to Israel.
But his choice of a foreign policy team, especially Hillary Clinton as Secretary of State and Rahm Emanuel as chief of staff, have raised doubts that much will change.
Mustapha el-Sayed of Cairo University said: “I am really pessimistic ... because when I see the kind of people who surround President-elect Obama I find they are the best friends of Israel who do not dare to distance themselves from the positions of the Israeli government.”
Unlike most major governments, the Bush administration has not called for an immediate ceasefire between Israel and the Islamist movement Hamas, which runs Gaza, adopting an approach similar to that it took when Israel invaded Lebanon in 2006.
It opposed a ceasefire in Lebanon until it became clear that Israel could not achieve its war aims against Hezbollah guerrillas and that Israeli casualties were becoming too high.
Nafaa said the Israeli government chose this time to attack Hamas partly because it was not sure that it would have Obama’s support if it waited until he takes office on January 20. “But it knows it has the unconditional support of Bush,” he added.
The outcome of the Gaza campaign will, however, have a big impact on the geostrategic landscape which Obama inherits.
If Israel fails to defeat Hamas, the Islamist movement could emerge stronger, at the expense of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas and the Egyptian government — the Arabs on whom the United States most depends in its Arab-Israeli policy.
If Israel succeeds and eliminates the threat from rockets fired from Gaza, Obama could more easily revive direct talks between Israel and Abbas on a peace agreement based on two states living side by side.
The main Arab expectation from Obama is that he will at least take more interest in Middle East peace than his predecessor, who began to give it priority only in the latter stages of his presidency .
“Certainly having an Obama who will urge the players to talk, as opposed to a Bush who did not, makes a difference,” said Paul Salem, director of the Carnegie Institute’s Middle East Center in Beirut.
“But Obama will not force Israel (into concessions). Politically he will not put large amounts of pressure on the Israelis,” Salem added.
Walid Kazziha, a professor at the American University in Cairo, said Obama would have to take bold steps if he wants to restore U.S. influence in the Middle East, widely seen as having greatly declined during eight years of Bush.
But the first signs do not suggest Obama will do that, he added. “If he was going to take a stand he would have said something. When he wants to say something, he can,” he said.
Sayed said he expected a tug of war between Obama advisers in favor of the status quo, closely allied with Israel, and between those who think differently.
“My impression is that the good friends of Israel will prevail at the end and this will contribute to a further erosion of U.S. influence in the area,” he added.
(Additional reporting by Yara Bayoumy and Alistair Lyon in Beirut, and Alastair Sharp in Cairo)
Writing by Jonathan Wright; Editing by Richard Balmforth