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Obama at the United Nations

interior-obamaunThis article appeared in the Sunday Herald on September 26, 2010.

When Barack Obama was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, last October, he acknowledged that it was absurdly premature. It was not, he said, recognition of anything that he had achieved but “a call to action” that would guide his foreign policy decisions. The week before accepting his medal, he sent 30,000 more American soldiers to Afghanistan.

Obama’s speech at the United Nations General Assembly this week demonstrated that, like many presidents before him, he views a successful intervention in the Middle East peace process as the surest way to restore the USA’s international reputation, so badly damaged by one “war of necessity” too many.

“If an agreement is not reached, Palestinians will never know the pride and dignity that comes with their own state,” he said. “Israelis will never know the certainty and security that comes with sovereign and stable neighbours who are committed to coexistence.”

He reiterated his administration’s position with regard to Jewish settlements in the West Bank, calling for the current moratorium to be extended. He even set a deadline of sorts. “When we come back here next year,” Obama said, “we can have an agreement that will lead to a new member of the United Nations: an independent, sovereign state of Palestine, living in peace with Israel.”

There were echoes of his celebrated address to the Islamic world, in Cairo, in June 2009. There, he articulated sentiments that Muslims are unaccustomed to hearing from a US president. He admitted that American interrogators had sometimes tortured their captives and described the Israeli presence in Gaza as an occupation – while also condemning Muslim extremists that deny the Holocaust or seek the destruction of Israel.

His problem is that what the Nobel committee views as “extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples” Jewish conservatives see as appeasement. Many of Obama’s closest friends are Jews, including strategist David Axelrod and Chief Of Staff Rahm Emanuel, but the Israeli right remains extremely wary of his intentions.

During the 2008 election, former congressman Abner Mikva, one of Obama’s political patrons in Chicago, joked to the Chicago Jewish News that “when this is all over, people are going to say that Barack Obama is the first Jewish president.” He eventually won 78% of the Jewish vote – impressive, although not unheard of for a Democrat.

A Gallup survey, released last month, shows that this support is eroding. Obama’s approval rating among Jews has dropped to 61%. There were similar declines among Protestants and Catholics, to 43% and 50% respectively. The one religious group that continues to hold the president in almost universally high esteem – with a 78% approval rating – is Muslims.

Obama’s Muslim ancestors, Indonesian upbringing and middle name, Hussein, lend weight to his expressions of empathy with the Muslim world, but back home they are a political liability. Rush Limbaugh, the most popular talk radio host in America, regularly refers to the president as “Imam Hussein Obama” and wonders aloud whether he is a Muslim: “Obama says he’s a Christian, but where’s the evidence?”

Elected representatives of the Republican party are rarely so frank, but the notion that Obama is somehow insufficiently American – a Muslim, an African, a socialist – is fed by a constant drip of innuendo. Almost half of all registered Republican voters think he is a Muslim. More than a quarter doubt that he is a citizen of the USA.

In this context, negotiating a peace settlement in which Israel makes serious concessions is fraught with political danger. When – if – talks begin, Obama will bring some baggage of his own to the table.

On Wednesday, there were violent clashes between Palestinian protestors and Israeli police in East Jerusalem, after a private security guard protecting a small group of Jewish settlers shot a Palestinian man dead. Riot police stormed the hilltop known to Muslims as the Noble Sanctuary and to Jews as the Temple Mount.

The Pew Global Attitudes Survey, published in June, found that the United States is viewed with increasing hostility all over the Muslim world. In Turkey, Egypt and Pakistan – three nominal allies – only 17% of the population has a favourable opinion of the USA.

Announcing his “road map” for peace in 2002, President George Bush spoke of “two states, living side by side in peace and security.” He added a Quran to the White House library, celebrated the end of Ramadan with American Muslims and made a point of describing Islam as a “religion of peace” at every opportunity. Nobody seriously considered him for the Nobel Prize.

Obama, blessed with rhetorical gifts and cursed with unrealistic expectations, has already won one. If he can persuade Israel and Palestine to resolve their seemingly intractable differences and make significant progress towards a lasting peace, he will certainly have earned it.

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