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Obama in Mideast: A Focus on Arab Peace Plan and Reform

Interviewee: Steven A. Cook, Senior Fellow for Middle Eastern Studies, Council on Foreign Relations
Interviewer: Bernard Gwertzman, Consulting Editor, CFR.org
June 2, 2009

CFR Middle East expert Steven A. Cook says President Barack Obama's trip to Saudi Arabia and Egypt this week will attempt to bring new energy to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, and has an opportunity to deliver a message on democracy in the Muslim world. On specific concerns, Cook says, he will seek to reassure allies like King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia that the United States will not forsake Saudi and other Gulf security concerns as it tries to engage Iran in negotiations on its nuclear program. In Cairo, where Obama is giving a speech to the "Muslim world," Cook expects Obama to stress again the U.S. commitment to trying to achieve an Arab-Israeli peace agreement, even as his remarks have raised concerns in Israel about his opposition to Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

President Obama leaves for the Middle East this week. He stops in Saudi Arabia, where he will have a private meeting and dinner with King Abdullah. Then he goes on to Cairo where he'll meet with President Hosni Mubarak and give a major speech to the Muslim world at Cairo University. What should we expect from this trip?

The president wants to continue his outreach to the Muslim world, which he began with his inaugural address, and continued with his interview with the Al Arabiya television network, his message on the Iranian New Year, and his speech in Ankara. Over the course of the Bush administration there was clearly a problem between the United States and the Muslim world, particularly the Arab world. President Obama has elaborated on themes of respect, tolerance, American values and ideals, and has talked about resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict. In Ankara, he indicated that the United States was not at war with Islam. I think there's an opportunity to further these themes and expand on them to reach out the Muslim world in a way that won't necessarily resolve outstanding problems, but will build the foundation of trust between the United States and people in the Arab world and the wider Muslim world.

I think there’s an opportunity for the president, both in his speech and private meetings, to emphasize--in a way that’s different from the Bush administration--that the United States remains interested in political reform.

Let's start with his first stop in Saudi Arabia. There probably won't be anything public there. What will they be talking about?

There are a couple of issues that are going to be on the agenda. First, Saudi Arabia along with Egypt are our two main Arab interlocutors. If you're going to do outreach with the Muslim world, going to Cairo is one thing, but you also have to recognize Saudi Arabia as the custodian of the two holiest sites in Islam, Mecca and Medina. Second is the question of Saudi Arabia and its involvement in the peace process. I think there's renewed interest within the Obama administration in the Arab peace plan, which was previously the Saudi peace plan and before that the Crown Prince Abdullah Peace Plan [first launched in 2002]. The Obama administration is signaling that it's interested in that document, and there are signals from Israel that there is a potential basis there for the plan to move forward. The plan calls for recognition of Israel by other Arab and Muslim states if Israel reaches a peace agreement with the Palestinians. There's also an effort under way to encourage Arab leaders to signal to the Israeli people that there would be normalizations of relations. I don't think anyone's expecting the same kind of thing that President Anwar Sadat of Egypt did in 1977 when he spoke to the Knesset. But I do think that signals from the Arab world are helpful in moving the Israeli electorate in the direction of making tangible concessions. Third is the Iranian situation and the threat they pose on the Saudis. The Saudis are concerned that the U.S. policy of engagement will ultimately lead to a compromise of Saudi security. The Obama administration wants to reassure the Saudis that this is not the case: that dialogue with the Iranians does not necessarily mean that Saudi security is in jeopardy.

I guess the key question for the Saudis is if the engagement with Iran will lead to Iran going ahead with its nuclear program.

That's certainly a real issue for the Saudis. I don't think anyone really believes that the Iranians would develop and use a nuclear weapon, but the very fact that they might have the ability to make nuclear weapons might mean they can push around states on the Western side of the Gulf.

This isn't the first time an American president has made a big deal about democracy in the Arab world. In 2005, the Bush administration, with then-Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, gave a speech in Cairo calling for more liberalization. That call kind of backfired. Do you expect Obama to push the democracy button?

I think that the Obama administration is interested in democracy in the Middle East. I think there's an opportunity for the president, both in his speech and private meetings, to emphasize--in a way that's different from the Bush administration--that the United States remains interested in political reform. He wrote in Foreign Affairs during his campaign that this was something he remained interested in through an approach that consisted of respect and partnership. There's an opportunity there. There's also an opportunity to implicitly suggest to people in the Arab and Muslim world that the United States recognizes that these are authoritarian political systems, but that the administration recognizes that there are many Arabs and Muslims around the world who want to live in a democratic setting, as many do in Turkey, India, the United States, Indonesia, Malaysia, so on and so forth.

The Saudis are concerned that the U.S. policy of engagement will ultimately lead to a compromise of Saudi security. The Obama administration wants to reassure the Saudis that this is not the case: that dialogue with the Iranians does not necessarily mean that Saudi security is in jeopardy.

Nobody will read the president's words more carefully than the audience in Israel. There's already been some tension brewing in the Israeli political scene over the Obama administration's strong stand on telling Israel it has to stop all building of settlements on the West Bank, including what Israelis call "natural growth." Do you think the United States is heading toward a major rift with Israel?

We've discussed in a previous interview that the Obama administration has a principled position that settlement building makes it difficult to move the peace process along because it ultimately weakens Mahmoud Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, who has staked his political legacy on negotiation and compromise with the Israelis as opposed to Hamas, which has said that these negotiations get us nothing. Hamas says it only gives us more Israeli settlers on Palestinian land. I would expect that in Cairo, the president is going to have to make some sort of strong statement about the Arab-Israeli conflict, in particular the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, in order for it to be received well by the larger audience in the Arab and Muslim world. Whether we like it or not, many in the Arab and Muslim world, when thinking about the Arab-Israeli conflict, see the United States as supporting Israel no matter what. This is a problem in terms of America's stature and winning hearts and minds in the region.

President George H.W. Bush brought great pressure to bear on then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir, in their private meetings, implying that if the settlements were not stopped, the United States would cut off some monetary programs, didn't he?

This actually happened after the Gulf War, when pressure really ratcheted up on the Shamir government. What the Shamir government wanted was $10 billion in loan guarantees that would allow the Israeli government to borrow the money on international markets at lower interest rates. The Bush administration refused-they said that unless you guarantee to us that this money that you'll be borrowing will not be used to build or expand existing settlements in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, we will not provide you with the loan guarantees. It turned into a very public spat between the Israeli government and the U.S.

Which Congress got quite involved in?

Congress got involved, and I don't think the Bush administration blinked. Ultimately, this undermined Shamir in the eyes of the Israeli public due to the fallout with the United States. Among other things that Israelis are concerned about is their relationship with the United States and given the fact that relations between Washington and Jerusalem deteriorated over that issue, Yitzhak Rabin and the Labor Party were brought to power in the spring of 1992.

The Obama administration has said that it is not considering using monetary pressure on the Israelis, but they seem to be engaged in using the bully pulpit. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and the president have both spoken out forcefully on no new settlement building-- no ifs, ands, or buts. The Israelis responded by saying "well there's natural growth, we can't stop life in the settlements." They try to make the point that this is all natural and a matter of families growing. In practice, it doesn't quite work that way. The Israeli definition of building an existing settlement is quite different from that.

What about Lebanon? The elections are coming up this Sunday. Do you expect Obama to make a pitch on that or stay out of it? We've already had Clinton and Vice President Biden visit the country.

I don't think it would be wise for the president to make any full-throated statement about the Lebanese elections. Probably the best thing to do is let that situation play itself out and see what the outcome is. The president can speak generally about democracy and elections without necessarily calling out the Lebanese. Some of these things tend to have a counterproductive effect if there's even a sense that the Americans are lecturing people in that part of the world on how to vote.

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