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Commentary Last Updated: Apr 16th, 2009 - 00:50:14

So many words, but so little action
By Linda Heard
Online Journal Contributing Writer

Apr 16, 2009, 00:22

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President Barack Obama definitely talks a good talk but when it comes to implementing his stated foreign policy goals, he appears to be dragging his heels. He�s certainly been decisive on the economy and has upset many in the process. But three months into his presidency, his Middle East policy is still vague and he has yet to officially approach Iran to hold what he terms mutually respectful talks.

On Israel-Palestine peace, his statements have been confusing, as he has variously backed the 2002 Saudi-inspired Arab peace initiative as well as the road map and the Annapolis Declaration. While the road map and Annapolis are based on the same basic principle, the Arab initiative requires Israel to withdraw behind 1967 lines in exchange for normalization of diplomatic/trade relations with all 22 Arab League members.

He needs to come out clearly as to where he stands on this issue before real progress can be made. Will he push for the road map or does he prefer comprehensive regional peace?

In Obama�s defense, though, the turbulent political situation in Israel, which now has a right-wing government disinterested in a two-state solution, has hardly been conducive to policy formulation. Netanyahu clearly does not want a Palestinian state on Israel�s borders opting, instead, for what he dubs �economic peace,� which would bolster the West Bank economy and strengthen the Mahmoud Abbas-led Palestinian National Authority�s security apparatus.

Gaza would be kept locked-down and impoverished further exacerbating Palestinian divisions. In other words, Netanyahu wants to �buy� Palestinian residents of the West Bank with hopes of an improved lifestyle in return for their dreams of nationhood. If he thinks this will work, then he is grossly underestimating the determination of all Palestinians toward independence.

On Monday, US special Middle East envoy George Mitchell was scheduled to begin a visit to Israel, the Palestinian territories and Egypt to test the weather and to press Netanyahu�s government to embrace the two-state solution. But in light of the strident attitude of Israel�s hawkish foreign minister, Avigdor Liebermann, who has declared the peace process dead and told foreign powers to stay out of Israeli politics, chances of success are minimal.

In the event that Mitchell meets with a brick wall, the question most Middle East observers want to know is �How tough is Obama prepared to get with his Israeli counterpart?� Will he make the right noises while allowing the current impasse to fester or will he risk a collision course with a fervently Israel-adoring Congress?

From his reluctance to comment on Israel�s 22-day onslaught on Gaza and his willingness to bow to the demands of the pro-Israel US lobby to rob former Ambassador to Saudi Arabia Charles Freeman of his National Security Council post, one can make inferences. Obama doesn�t like to be overtly confrontational perhaps because, as he said himself during a visit to Turkey, US policy is like turning a tanker that needs time.

Congress may still be eager to bow and scrape before Tel Aviv but the temperature of the US public may be turning on this issue. Recently, the Doha Debates that is broadcast on BBC World conducted a debate on this motion: This House believes it�s time for the US administration to get tough on Israel. This time the show was filmed at Washington�s Georgetown University and the result was surprising with 63 percent of the audience voting in favor of the motion.

Former US Ambassador to Israel Phil Wilcox said, �It has been evident from recent opinion polls and reactions from the Jewish community, as well as broader public opinion in America, that there is a demand for much stronger leadership from the US government toward Israel.� President Obama and Congress would do well to reassess the public mood and reflect the will of voters.

When it comes to Iran, Obama appears similarly indecisive. He didn�t respond to President Ahmadinejad�s congratulatory message upon his inauguration but he was extremely conciliatory toward the Iranian government and people in his Iranian New Year video address.

When Ahmadinejad was asked by the German magazine Der Spiegel what he thought of Obama�s innovative approach, he said, �Ambivalent. Some passages were new, while some repeated well-known positions. I thought it striking that Obama attached such high value to the Iranian civilization, our history and culture. It is also positive that he stresses mutual respect and honest interactions with one another . . . ,� but �we feel that Obama must now follow his words with actions.�

It seems to me that Obama must stop dipping his toes in cold water. If he wants to make an impact on the world, he should hold his breath and take a giant leap now and again. Great leaders need to make decisions, no matter how unpopular and hold to the courage of their convictions. Heads of state who tiptoe around worrying about who they might offend don�t manage to solve anything in the long run.

To quell the hatred between Iran and the US since the 1979 revolution, Obama should make a grand gesture in the way that Egyptian President Anwar Sadat did when he made a historic flight to Tel Aviv in 1978. And to get the Israel-Palestine peace process on some sort of track, he needs to gather armsful of sticks and be willing to wave them at Israel now and then.

It may be that this extraordinarily gifted president will eventually amaze us. He famously snapped at a reporter with �I like to know what I�m talking about before I speak.� If the same common sense principle applies to his actions, then it could be that all he needs is a little more time.

Linda S. Heard is a British specialist writer on Middle East affairs. She welcomes feedback and can be contacted by email at

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