WASHINGTON — A key obstacle the next U.S. president will face in winning the friendship of Arab countries was clear during Monday night’s foreign policy debate: Israel was mentioned 22 times, the Palestinians just once – and then only in passing.
Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains one of the Arab world’s top priorities, and the more independent, Islamist-leaning governments that are taking power after last year’s mass uprisings deposed longtime American allies could push the issue to the forefront anew.
But with high political risk and low U.S. voter interest in the topic, revisiting peace negotiations isn’t likely to be a priority for either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, according to analysts who specialize in the Middle East.
That reluctance is just one more hurdle in the U.S. government’s struggle to regain the regional influence it lost when the popular revolts took out reliable Arab allies, chief among them Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
“The real sticking point is Israel and the Palestinians. It’s still the most troubling aspect of relations with the U.S.,” said Hani Shukrallah, a prominent Egyptian journalist who’s the author of the book “Egypt, the Arabs and the World: Reflections at the Turn of the 21st Century.”
The idea that the United States can continue simply “managing” but not resolving the conflict is outdated, analysts said.
Romney made no friends among Arabs when he was caught on video telling donors at a $50,000-a-head fundraiser that Palestinians have “no interest whatsoever” in reaching peace with Israel. If he’s elected president, he said, he’d just “kick the ball down the field” in hopes that one day there’d be a breakthrough that would resolve the conflict, now in its 65th year.
“That is a fantasy,” said Matthew Duss, the director of Middle East progress at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington research institute. “The status quo is deteriorating, and it’s a brutal status quo, one that, unfortunately, breeds violence.”
“It’s going to be a significant issue whether American governments recognize it or not,” Duss added.
Analysts said Obama seemed outwardly committed to rejuvenated peace negotiations, but that he, too, appeared unwilling to pressure the Israelis on the construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank. Obama’s special envoy to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, veteran Democratic politician George Mitchell, resigned last year out of frustration with the lack of progress.
Given the short shrift the conflict received during Monday’s foreign policy debate and in general on the campaign trail, analysts aren’t convinced that Obama would go much farther than Romney’s plan to “kick the ball down the field.”
“Maybe he’s got it in him, but it might be like Clinton: a little bit too late, waiting until the last two years,” said Matt Sienkiewicz, a professor at Boston College whose research focuses on U.S. investment in Middle Eastern broadcasting initiatives.
Sienkiewicz wrote a short online essay this week in which he compared the candidates’ rhetoric on the Mideast conflict. The headline was “Q. Who lost the presidential debate? A. Israel-Palestine peace.”
Back in March 2010, months before the Arab revolts erupted, Gen. David Petraeus raised eyebrows when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. bias toward Israel in peace negotiations “foments anti-American sentiment” and is a threat to national security because al Qaida and other militant groups exploit the anger to mobilize support.
“Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples” in the region, Petraeus, who’s now the director of the CIA, testified at the time.
The limitations he described have only deepened now that Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen have newly installed governments that are eager to chart independent foreign policies.
Meanwhile, Persian Gulf powers, keen to ride the wave of revolt while not necessarily effecting change at home, are taking bold stances in backing Arab revolutionaries in moves that make the United States look reactionary.
While Romney and Obama debate the long-term wisdom of sending weapons to the Syrian rebels who are fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime, Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the main suppliers of arms. Qatar was also a strong backer of the Libyan rebel movement, and it maintains close ties with the Egyptians.
This week, the tiny Gulf emirate waded into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, became the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since the militant Islamist group Hamas seized control of it five years ago after winning parliamentary elections. The emir unveiled a $400 million investment project for Gaza, including a new housing development and several roads.
“The visit by the emir of Qatar is a very significant event,” Duss said. “The message there is, ‘We implicitly, if not explicitly, recognize Hamas as the government in Gaza.’ ”
In the United States, the controversial visit led to a small but significant shift in policy: The State Department, which typically condemns official trips to Gaza as support for a group it considers a terrorist organization, deemed the emir’s visit a “humanitarian mission.”
“We share Qatar’s deep concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people, including those residing in Gaza,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
While Israeli media crowed that the State Department had gone soft on Hamas, other observers deemed the reaction a sensible response to the U.S. struggle to stay relevant in a changing Middle East. But analysts say it’ll take more than a slightly thawed policy toward Hamas to get Arab governments to view the U.S. as a neutral broker that can save the idea of an independent Palestinian state existing alongside Israel – known as the two-state solution – which Duss described as “on life support.”
Egypt in particular appears determined to emphasize Arab sovereignty after decades under Mubarak, whom many Arabs derided as a puppet ruler for his guardian of the Camp David peace treaty with Israel.
Mubarak’s successor, Mohammed Morsi, was a top official of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother organization of Hamas. On Monday, Romney mentioned him in the same breath as terrorist groups, a connection that analysts said was unlikely to be helpful.
“Instead of taking the opportunity to see how the changes could break the stalemate, they’re looking backward and seeing how they could possibly make things worse than before,” said Sienkiewicz, the Boston College professor.
Shukrallah, the Egyptian political writer, said the connections could open new channels of influence, noting that the new Egyptian government holds great sway over Hamas. But the next U.S. administration also will have to recognize that the new Arab governments are much more responsive to their citizens, who express solidarity with the Palestinian cause in poll after poll.
Arab leaders, Shukrallah said, “will have to adopt postures that, at least on the surface, are definitely more assertive toward Israel and the Palestinians.” That will mean the U.S. also will have to take firmer stances on issues such as Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “Without a strong U.S. stance, a two-state solution isn’t viable,” he said.