Can Obama Please Both Arabs and Israelis?

The citizens of the Middle East aren't looking for lofty speeches -- they want U.S. support for their preferred policies.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

A few months ago, I appeared on a popular Egyptian television talk show — al-Qahira al-Youm — that addressed front-page stories in the press. One of the questions I was asked surprised me. The Egyptian press had apparently translated a Washington Post article about President Barack Obama’s private spiritual life and his regular consultation with Christian ministers. Seemingly alarmed, the host asked me to provide comment. Immediately, I saw where the question was headed. During the George W. Bush’s presidency, there was considerable focus, at home and abroad, on Bush’s Christian faith and the role of evangelicals in U.S. foreign policy. This played squarely into the hands of those Muslims who preferred to frame foreign-policy issues as a struggle between Islam and the "crusaders," and Obama seemed to provide a fresh start. But could Obama be instead a closet evangelical Christian?

It was not hard to deal with the question on Egyptian TV, pointing out that all presidents benefit from being recognized as men of faith and that being a Christian in the United States does not automatically provide predictions of your Middle East policy — as is well-demonstrated by perhaps the most religious U.S. president of the 20th century, Jimmy Carter. But the very fact that this issue had to be addressed in the Arab media was itself an indication of the times, of the decline in Arab public opinion of a president who a year ago opened many hearts and minds even before he delivered a memorable and historic speech in Cairo.

It was also a reminder of how frequently the discourse about U.S. foreign policy produces blinding fog. Even among the many who never bought that Obama’s Muslim father or his childhood years in a Muslim-majority country had predictable impact on his Middle East policy, some assumed that many Arabs and Muslims were bound to evaluate him on these terms. While people are bound to use any fragment of information to assess the outlook of a political leader, in the end everyone is looking for policy clues on issues that matter to them. Obama’s personal history provided some early positive clues to most Arabs and Muslims — and negative ones to Israelis — but only as possible indicators of policy.

There is no indication that Arabs ever embraced Obama simply because of who he is. It was always about issues, not about his personal background. During the presidential campaign, in April and May of 2008, I asked a question about attitudes toward the three remaining candidates, Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton, in a poll conducted with Zogby International in Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, Morocco, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates. "Who is best suited to advance Middle East peace?" Not surprisingly, McCain, whose campaign was speaking of an "Islamo-Fascist" threat, received the nod from a mere 3 percent of those polled. Clinton was favored by 13 percent and Obama by 18 percent — separated by an amount that was not much above the margin of error. A plurality said "none of the above." This was not about Arabs seeing Obama as a "secret Muslim."

By the time Obama delivered the Cairo speech in June 2009, polls were already showing remarkable openness toward the new U.S. president. In a University of Maryland/Zogby poll conducted in April and May 2009, a plurality of the Arabs surveyed had a favorable view of Obama, while a majority expressed optimism about the prospects of U.S. policy in the Middle East. The two measures were inevitably tied. But what might not have been clear to observers is that the former was more a function of the later — not the other way around.

Certainly, there was something of "anything but Bush" in Arab attitudes, after several years of George W. Bush being identified as the most disliked leader in the world among Arabs polled in the six countries. There was also the puzzlement about Americans electing an African-American president — something many Arabs and others around the world hadn’t believed could happen. But more than anything else, it was about the issues. They liked Obama’s opposition to the Iraq war and his stated intent to withdraw U.S. forces from Iraq, as well as his opposition to torture and the Guantánamo Bay prison — which many in the region saw as particularly aimed at Arabs and Muslims — and they were heartened by his emphasis on the importance of the Arab-Israeli issue.

But contrary to conventional wisdom, Arabs never embraced Obama. In the spring 2009 poll, the overwhelming majority of those who had a favorable view of Obama expressed only a "somewhat favorable view," and in Egypt a significant number of those polled were neutral about him. And in the annual open question, "Whom among world leaders do you admire most?", Obama’s name was not among the top choices. It was always about policy, and the public was adopting a wait-and-see attitude.

Like any people around the world, Arabs care about many things. But they view Washington through a limited set of issues. To most Arabs, the United States is an anchor of a political order they do not like, in all its manifestations — authoritarianism, the declining global influence of Arab countries, the Iraq war, the war on terrorism, and the protracted Palestinian-Israeli conflict. But they don’t rank issues equally when they evaluate U.S. foreign policy. And nothing ranks higher than the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

We really didn’t need polls to see that the mood in the region has shifted in the past year, as many experts or frequent visitors would have heard an earful on this issue with most of the complaints focused on the Israeli Palestinian issue. Certainly, in the 2010 UMD/Zogby poll, 61 percent of polled Arabs identified the Arab-Israeli conflict as the issue they are disappointed with the most in Obama’s foreign policy. Obama’s new tone toward Islam and Muslims was identified as the most positive policy issue, but only by 20 percent. The net result was a remarkable change in attitudes toward Obama from 45 percent favorable in 2009 to only 20 percent in 2010.

In sorting out the fog of multiple issues, it is instructive to look at how Arabs have reacted to world leaders over the past several years. One case is particularly striking. In 2004 and 2005, French President Jacques Chirac, a leader of a firmly secular Western country with a colonial history in the Arab world, was named by polled Arabs as the single most popular leader in the world. This happened even as the controversy over wearing the veil in French schools was raging, and trouble was brewing within France’s immigrant communities, many of which are Arab. The Arab public was prepared to look the other way and reward Chirac for two deeds: first, his hosting of gravely ill Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and treating him as head of state — showing a degree of respect that Arafat certainly was not getting from the Bush administration. Second was Chirac’s opposition to the Iraq war. Even popular Islamic scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi could not bring himself to criticize the French policy on the veil when confronted by questions from viewers on Al Jazeera TV.

It is something of a myth that Arabs ever embraced President Bill Clinton as much as Israelis did, though at some point they warmed up to him. Certainly, this was not the case in the early months before the Oslo agreements were signed, when Clinton was most often identified as "the most pro-Israel president ever." Clinton continued to be viewed by Arabs as pro-Israel even in the most optimistic periods, including when he gave a historic speech to the Palestinian Legislative Council in Gaza. Arabs and others around the world simply assumed after Oslo that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was on its way to a resolution. But this changed after the collapse of the negotiations at Camp David in July 2000, which is why Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, in remarks at the dedication of the S. Daniel Abraham Ce
nter for Middle East Peace in April, contrasted global attitudes in the 1990s with the trends in the past year in this way:

[O]ne of the striking experiences that I had becoming secretary of state and now having traveled something on the order of 300,000 miles in the last 15 months and going to dozens and dozens of countries, is that when I compare that to my experience as first lady, where I was also privileged to travel around the world, back in the ’90s when I went to Asia or Africa or Europe or Latin America, it was rare that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was raised. Now it is the first, second, or third item on nearly every agenda of every country I visit. 


By the time the 2000 American presidential election season arrived, Arabs were heavily rooting against Bill Clinton’s vice president, Al Gore, the Democratic presidential candidate, and strongly favoring his Republican opponent, George W. Bush, whose father’s administration was seen as more responsive to their interests. It took Arabs but a few months to start missing Bill Clinton. It was never about individuals, or style, or promises. It isn’t today.

And it’s not any different for the Israelis.

Israelis were not so threatened by who Barack Obama was, as much as by the implications of the policies he advocated, which threatened a worldview they had adopted over the past decade. Yes, they rooted against Obama throughout the U.S. presidential campaign — even before they learned about the Rev. Jeremiah Wright — according to a panel brought together by Haaretz, and early attitudes were primarily based on the absence of information about his positions toward Israel. The convener of the panel even speculated that there might have been an implicit stereotyping that perhaps Obama being an African-American may make him more sympathetic toward the underdog Palestinians. But early attitudes change quickly: Israelis rooted for Gore/Lieberman passionately and against Bush/Cheney — just the opposite of initial Arab instincts. But that didn’t last long. Bush supported the tough Israeli policies in the West Bank and Gaza, especially after 9/11, and became a favorite leader among Israelis who quickly forgot what they had wished for in the U.S. elections.

Had Obama visited Israel in his early months and delivered a powerful speech akin to the one he delivered in Cairo, it might have bought him a brief period of goodwill — very brief. For at the core of Israeli concerns is something bigger than even the approach to Palestinian-Israeli negotiations. It is the entire foreign policy paradigm of the Obama administration: stripping references to Islam from the war on terrorism; relying on multilateralism, international organizations and law; and certainly articulating that Arab-Israeli peace is an American interest. Israelis had grown comfortable and secure in Bush’s world, which emphasized unilateralism, linked Islam and terrorism in the American discourse, and, in practice, de-emphasized the Arab-Israeli issue for much of the time.

Beneath all the tough talk, the nuclear weapons, the conventional superiority, and the occupation, is a deeply insecure Israeli nation. This insecurity defines the outlook of most Israelis from right to left especially in times of crisis. In the 1990s, there was a sense — particularly after the Oslo agreement — that history had finally ended: The United States had won the Cold War, and Israel, in effect, had won the Arab-Israeli conflict, with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict on its way to resolution. Most Arabs, Israelis, and others around the world, including those who didn’t like the projected ending, still saw it as inevitable — which is why first lady Hillary Clinton was hearing few voices focused on the Arab-Israeli issue during that period. All that changed after the collapse of the peace negotiations in 2000, the rise of the Al-Aqsa Intifada, and, yes, the fear that 9/11 generated for Israelis.

Two things resulted. The first was that the escalation in violence not only brought destruction and death to Palestinians and Israelis, but also that the Israeli body politic saw in the escalation an "existential crisis." In large part, this crisis was due to the increase in suicide bombings during that period and to the Palestinians’ ability to galvanize Arab, Muslim, and other support around the world in a manner that was seemingly absent during the 1990s and was thought to have disappeared. The second was 9/11 itself, which above all raised real fears in Israel that perhaps the United States would conclude that the horrific attack on American soil should be blamed on U.S. support for Israel.

The emergent interpretation adopted by the Bush administration, "they hate us for our values," was thus welcome music in Israel. Whether Israelis fully believed this interpretation or not, it reassured Israelis of U.S. support. And it is this framing that is being unraveled by the Obama administration as it seeks to reach out to Muslims and attempts to transform the zero-sum mindset among Arabs and Israelis in the pursuit of a negotiated peace settlement.

Yet, despite the U.S. mediation efforts from the start of the Obama administration, Arabs and Israelis remain in effect in a zero-sum mood. This is captured by the pervasive pessimism about the outcome of the negotiations with majorities of polled Arabs expressing the view that the two-state solution will never happen. Yes, people would be happy to be surprised, but their bet is on failure. And when diplomatic failure occurs, conflict escalates and each side wants to prepare solid alliances for the morning after. The role of the United States is seen to a large extent from that perspective: Whose side will the United States take when it all falls apart? And every signal the United States sends of reaching out to one side will anger the other. There is no way around this dilemma at this point.

But there really was never a way around it. There was hardly any public preparation or trust between Israelis and Egyptians before Egyptian President Anwar Sadat undertook his historic visit to Jerusalem and before an actual agreement was signed. Even when Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin went to Camp David in 1978, each side was prepared to leave with no peace agreement at all as long as they consolidated their relations with the United States at the expense of the other. Only after an agreement was reached did their attitudes toward each other and toward the U.S. role change.

The same could be said about the Oslo agreement. No public trust existed between Israelis and Palestinians and no serious preparation to change attitudes was in place. But once an agreement was reached and backed by the United States, attitudes changed — and the Palestinians warmed up to Bill Clinton and U.S. mediation.

The Arab-Israeli conflict remains the central prism through which both Arabs and Israelis will continue to evaluate U.S. foreign policy, and almost everything else will be seen through that narrow prism. One can do a lot of good on a lot of other issues, but don’t expect to score any points.

For the Obama administration, winning the Arab and Israeli publics at the same time is at this point nearly impossible without a genuine diplomatic breakthrough. It is too late to make mere promises, to win even a window of time through words or deeds on issues that are not as central in regional perceptions. But as history — and the polls — show, publics come around in an instant once a transformative agreement is put under their noses.

All this means one thing to the Obama administration’s diplomatic efforts: Put aside Arab and Israeli public opinion for the moment. Just build an agreement and they will come. 

Shibley Telhami is professor of government and politics and director of the Critical Issues Poll at the University of Maryland, and a nonresident senior fellow at the Brookings Institution. He is co-author of The Peace Puzzle: America’s Quest for Arab-Israeli Peace, 1989-2011, and of a forthcoming sequel on the Obama and Trump presidencies. Twitter: @ShibleyTelhami