|Israel's settlement expansion plan came as an embarrassment for Biden [AFP]
The visit to Israel by Joe Biden, the US vice-president, may usher in a new stage in US foreign policy towards the Middle East peace process, a phase that is clearly different from what many Arabs hoped for after listening to Barack Obama, the US president, in Cairo last June.
At that time, the young and charismatic president, who enjoyed wide Arab sympathy and support during his presidential election campaign, called for "a new beginning between the United States and Muslims around the world", a new start that is based on mutual respect and honest politics.
"America will align our policies with those who pursue peace and will say in public what we say in private," Obama said about the Arab-Israeli peace process, calling on Israel to "stop" the building of settlements.
But just a few months later, Obama gave up on asking Israel to freeze the construction of settlements.
He told Time magazine in January: "If we had anticipated some of these political problems on both sides [Israel and the Palestinians] earlier, we might not have raised expectations as high."
He meant the expectations of the Palestinians, who refused to participate in peace talks unless the Israeli government of Binyamin Netanyahu, Israel's prime minister, declares a total freeze of settlement activities in the occupied territories.
Moreover, the US administration turned the heat up on the Palestinians, urging them to engage in peace negotiations after Netanyahu announced a partial freeze of settlement activities in the West Bank for nine months.
When the Palestinians, with Arab backing, agreed to start indirect negotiations, Israeli authorities shocked everyone, including Biden, by announcing new massive settlement construction plans during his visit.
Biden responded by a strong condemnation and Netanyahu apologised for the "timing" of the announcement.
At the end of his visit to Israel Biden told an audience in Tel Aviv that he "appreciated" the response of the Israeli prime minister, who "clarified that the beginning of actual construction on this particular project would likely take several years".
Clearly, Biden failed to stop the illegal settlement plans. A very weak response to what many, including Israelis, considered an "insult" to the visiting vice-president.
Moreover, his speech at Tel Aviv University was in many aspects the opposite of Obama's Cairo speech.
At Cairo University, Obama looked young, idealistic, charismatic and an advocate of change. At Tel Aviv University, Biden looked old, realistic, boring, and pragmatic.
Listening to Biden’s speech reminds you of Senator Biden speaking to the annual dinner of the Washington-based pro-Israel lobby, Aipac, rather than the US vice-president going on an international tour to push forward the daunting Middle East peace process.
In his speech, Biden used many of his old clichés that he used in the past to appeal to pro-Israel audiences.
Those included statements from his first visit to Israel, his meeting with Golda Meir, the late Israel president, and his belief that "change will come to the Middle East when there is absolutely no space between America and Israel" and that "you don’t need to be a Jew to be a Zionist".
It was a sad reminder of the old American political rhetoric that fails to find new common ground between Arabs and Israelis.
Moreover, Biden downgraded the US role in the Middle East peace process from one of a guarantor and a sponsor, which Arabs expect, to one of a "facilitator", a "trust-builder" and a "bridging mechanism".
Biden emphasised his understanding of US role as "a facilitator" to a concerning level stressing that "the US cannot want peace more than the Israelis and the Palestinians want it".
Biden forgot that Arabs joined the current peace process in 1991 at a crucial historical moment. It was only a couple of years after the end of the Cold War and a few months after the US successfully led an international coalition to expel Saddam Hussein, the former Iraqi leader, from Kuwait.
At that time, Arabs thought that only America, the sole superpower, could help to deliver peace to the Middle East.
"Most Arab governments want Israel to be strong when it comes to Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria"
special adviser to US president
Biden also forgot that most of the progress achieved on the Arab Israel peace process - such as the establishment of the Palestinian Authority and the signing of a peace agreement between Israel and Jordan - took place during the years of Bill Clinton's US presidency, when the US enjoyed unparallelled political and economic world power.
It was the administration of George Bush, Obama's predecessor, that squandered US prestige and financial advantage on many fronts, and which brought the US peace process to a semi-halt.
The Bush-era was known for its neo-conservative bias towards Israel, disdain for diplomacy and distrust of Arabs and their interest in peace altogether.
Since Obama came to office, many Arabs have been wondering if the US, under the Bush administration, lost the strategic and political capital necessary to push and guarantee the daunting "peace process".
They saw a new administration busy with a domestic financial crisis, a divided and partisan political system, two unwinnable wars and competition with China.
Some were afraid that Israel was quicker than Arabs in realising America's weakness by fending off Obama's calls for a freeze of settlements.
Unfortunately, Biden speech could only deepen such fears.
Since it came to the White House, the Obama administration has failed to achieve clear progress on many Middle East fronts.
It could not persuade or pressure Iran away from its nuclear programmes, Syria away from Iran, Iraqi politicians away from sectarianism, Arab regimes towards democracy or Israel away from its expansionist and confrontational policies.
During his speech, Biden told his audience repeatedly that Dennis Ross, a veteran peace negotiator from the Clinton administration and a known pro-Israel advocate, is with him. He said it about three times.
Ross serves now as a special adviser to the US president at the US National Security Council.
In his latest book, Myth, Illusions, & Peace: Finding A New Direction for America in the Middle East, Ross advocates many of the ideas and policies repeated by Biden and other senior Obama administration officials recently.
Ross believes that successful peace negotiation should start with "gaining a sense of what Israel could live with and then trying to move the Arabs or Palestinian position accordingly".
He ultimately believes that "it is politically costly for [Arab] regimes that lacked basic legitimacy to look as if they were conceding before getting anything from Israel".
Therefore, he argues against "pressuring" or even "surprising" Israel.
"American has many roles to play in helping peace – from clarifying, to mobilising financial and political support, to protecting and insulating, to assuring and guaranteeing, providing such guarantees can relate to the agreement itself – meaning the readiness to guarantee the implementation of the terms of the agreement."
Unfortunately, such perspective sees peace between Israel and Palestinians as a long term goal that could wait while Arab regimes and Israel could co-operate urgently on more serious threats such as Iran and the Islamists.
"Most Arab governments want Israel to be strong when it comes to Iran, Hezbollah, Hamas, and Syria," says Ross.
|For Ross, the Palestinian issue is an
emoitional cause [Reuters]
He believes that the "Palestinian issue" is a public consumption issue for many Arab regimes, an emotional cause that is often used to drain the West and to divert public attention from urgent domestic Arab needs.
He argues that recent Israeli wars in Lebanon (2006) and Gaza (2009) did lead to some Arab street protests. But, they did not lead to the overthrow of any Arab regime or to a new oil curfew.
Instead, he believes that "common interests" between Israel and the Arab countries, on issues such Iran and confronting the Islamists, are larger than expected.
He believes that pushing the peace process forward will help strengthen Arab co-operation with Israel on such threats and push up to the surface. However, he obviously does not think it is a priority or an urgent need.
Such views are clearly different from what many Arabs hoped for when they heard Obama speak at Cairo last June.
They seem on the rise, which deals a serious blow to Arabs' hope for a real change in US foreign policy towards the Middle East under the current administration.