What is going on in the White House?
By Bilal Alhassan
A year ago US President Barack Obama outlined a clear and straightforward policy through which he wanted to improve relations between the US and the Islamic world which, as he himself stated, no longer poses a threat that ought to be confronted. In this regard, Obama stressed the importance of dialogue.
This is what has been stated publicly. Behind closed doors, however, talks have been underway between the US administration and key Islamic states, demanding their assistance in ending America’s crises with the Islamic world in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iran and Iraq in return for an American willingness to act effectively toward bringing about a settlement to the Arab-Israeli conflict. To put this idea into practice, Obama demanded a total settlement freeze from Israel to pave the ground for negotiations.
It has been said, also privately, that the Muslim States have now got a chance to specify what they actually want from the US in exchange for the mediation they are asked to undertake. A feeling prevailed among people that these demands would be fulfilled since this is the first time that the US administration acknowledges the extent of the crisis it is facing in the Islamic world and that it is heading towards defeat. It is also the first time that the US feels the need to be helped by Islamic states and that the conditions have been made ready for a successful political bargain with this world, which might well reflect on Palestine.
And between public statements and what is going on behind closed doors, ordinary Arab citizens have taken a wait-and-see attitude toward Obama’s plan, their feelings fluctuating between optimism and pessimism. Obama’s famous speech to the Islamic world from Cairo University made a good entry to the Islamic world and raised people’s expectations. Nonetheless, an atmosphere of pessimism prevailed over the region as the US administration continued a military policy that is inconsistent with Obama’s speech. The war continues in Afghanistan. The US army has expanded the sphere of war in Pakistan. The situation in Iraq remains unchanged so much so that the American military leadership has announced the possibility that it might postpone the planned withdrawal of US military forces from Iraq (!!) if elections were not held there. Tensions continue with Iran in parallel with calls for dialogue.
Observers began to wonder whether Islamic states actually started any mediation and whether, if they did, it was a success. Observers posed another question: had an American request been made to the Islamic states to be conflict-solving mediators in the first place? Or was that merely a media initiative launched by President Obama and could not find its way to being translated into real and concrete policy?
We are unable to give clear and precise answers to these questions. We do however have an answer more or less close to accuracy as to what happened on the Palestinian level that was supposed to go hand in hand with Islamic mediation. US Middle East Special envoy George Mitchell was appointed to breathe new life into Israeli-Palestinian negotiations away from Hillary Clinton who is known for her loyalty to Zionism.
Mitchell came to the region, talked, explained and called for a new spirit of work based on the assumption that Israel must stop its aggressive behaviour with regard to the issue of settlements. Obama strongly supported this approach and escalated pressure on Israel in the same direction. Suddenly, things began to change as President Obama announced that a settlement freeze was not a precondition for resuming negotiations between Israel and the PA.
An American official at the White House announced that negotiations would have to continue without preconditions. Then a noticeable change occurred and Mid-east envoy Mitchell withdrew from the process and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was commissioned, as she herself expressed, in total agreement with president Obama. Clinton’s retreat from the previous US demand for a settlement freeze has turned into pressure on Palestinian negotiator Mahmud Abbas. And in order to get him to retreat from his support for the precondition put forward by President Obama – the total halt on the settlements – and after putting a lot of pressure on Abbas, Clinton went on publicly praising Israel’s attitude and describing Netanyahu’s offer of a policy of settlement ‘restraint’ (i.e., not freeze) as ‘unprecedented’ and that the Americans were yet to discover this.
Within the same context, Mrs Clinton went to Abu Dhabi, met with Mahmud Abbas and demanded an immediate resumption of peace talks with Netanyahu, away from the issues of settlements and Al-Quds (Jerusalem). She then met Netanyahu who looked full of joy and excitement in a press conference they held following their meeting in Al-Quds and which was unique by all means. The following are extracts of what happened in this conference.
A journalist asks Mrs Clinton: Madame Secretary, when you were here in March on the first visit, you issued a strong statement condemning the demolition of housing units in East Jerusalem. Yet, that demolition has continued unabated, and indeed, a few days ago, the mayor of the city of Jerusalem issued a new order for demolition. How would you characterize this policy today?
Mrs Clinton answers: Well, let me say I have nothing to add to my statement in March. I continue to stand by what I said then.
US statements continue but with only one thing in common: more pressure on the Palestinians to re-launch the peace process without any pre-conditions.
A journalist asks Mrs Clinton as he notices how overwhelmed with joy she looks in the press conference standing next to Netanyahu on Saturday night: Madam Secretary, I wanted to ask you ‘Why is this night different from all other nights?’
Mrs Clinton replies immediately: Do you want us to burst into song?
A third scene with Netanyahu as the main character, responds to a question by another journalist on ‘the increasing tension surrounding the Temple Mount [Al-haram Al-qudsi al-sharif], some civil unrest in the streets’ and whether they (the Israelis) are heading into a new phase of ‘violence’ (intifada). Netanyahu recounts a personal story saying:
“My staff decided to have a meeting -a free evening a few weeks ago. They decided to have it in the Old City; in David’s City-there is a little restaurant there. They said: ‘Could you come for dessert?’ because I work long hours. I said: ‘Sure. I will see what I can do. I don’t promise but we we’ll make the arrangements.’ My security people went there. Within an hour, Palestinian news agencies carried the story that Netanyahu was coming to the Old City to burrow a new tunnel under the Temple Mount. So help me God. This became an issue of great consequence. There were rumours that the violence would break out exactly as you said. Now this is entirely false. There are daily examples of this and daily actions by militants, particularly militant Islamic radicals who are trying to stir up trouble on the Temple Mount.”
So this is the daily picture of what is going on in Al-Quds according to Netanyahu’s story: The Jews go to restaurants to have a meal whilst Islamic radicals stir up trouble. The digging, the demolition of people’s homes and the over expulsion of Palestinians before TV cameras and in full public view is however an incitement by radical elements!
Of course, in this unique atmosphere of joy and excitement Mrs Clinton was right to ask the journalist: Do you want us to burst into song?
While we wait for an answer it is worth asking the question once again: What is going on in the White house? How has the American settlement freeze demand turned into a necessity to resume negotiations without any pre-conditions? How has Mahmud Abbas’ adoption of Obama’s demand turned into a Palestinian attitude hindering the peace talks? How has Netanyahu’s objection to the US president’s demand become a positive and unprecedented Israeli stance?
While we wait for an answer, we have a few more questions: Has Obama’s speech on new relations with the Islamic world perished? And will the wars continue in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Palestine this time?
Has another singing party started over there in the White House? And poor Mitchell, what will he do now? Will he retire just like the PA is preparing to announce a retirement list including six thousand cadres of the PLO?
Translation from Arabic by Monjia Abdallah Abidi
The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.