Archive for January 27th, 2009

Obama on Al Arabiya

Tuesday, January 27th, 2009

My guess is that many in the Jewish world are nervous today. Obama chose to give his first formal television interview as president to Al Arabiya, the Arab language TV channel based in Dubai.

What does it mean? And what does it mean for Israel?

“Obama has tipped his hand with his first call going to [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud] Abbas, and his first formal interview going to al arabiya [sic],” commented one poster on the satellite channel’s Web site. “Now America has woken up … and they see they mistalenly [sic] elected a closet muslim/jihad sympathizer, and the party will end soon.”

This may be an extreme view. But I’m sure other, cooler heads in the Jewish community are wondering: What gives?

I’d urge those who are concerned to read the transcript. It really is an extraordinary document. In both content and tone.

First, let’s remember, as the AP pointed out:

Obama’s choice of Al-Arabiya network, which is owned by a Saudi businessman, follows the lead of the Bush administration, which gave several presidential interviews to that news channel.

“The U.S. sees Al-Arabiya as a friendly Arab channel, whereas they see Al-Jazeera as confrontational,” said Lawrence Pintak, director of the journalism training center at the American University in Cairo.

True, Obama spoke about his distant Muslim relatives, and told Muslims “Americans are not your enemy.” But what is striking to me — in part — is that while speaking through an Arab journalist to the Muslim world, Obama made this unsolicited remark:

Now, Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. And I will continue to believe that Israel’s security is paramount. But I also believe that there are Israelis who recognize that it is important to achieve peace. They will be willing to make sacrifices if the time is appropriate and if there is serious partnership on the other side.

He wasn’t asked to comment on the U.S.-Israeli relationship. He offered it. And he spoke of the requirement for “serious partnership” from Palestinians.

(The comment obviously impressed the editors at Al Arabiya, who included this excerpt as a blowup quote on their Web site: Now, Israel is a strong ally of the United States. They will not stop being a strong ally of the United States. )

Later, Obama said this:

I think anybody who has studied the region recognizes that the situation for the ordinary Palestinian in many cases has not improved. And the bottom line in all these talks and all these conversations is, is a child in the Palestinian Territories going to be better off? Do they have a future for themselves?

But he followed it up, again unsolicited, with this:

And is the child in Israel going to feel confident about his or her safety and security?

It’s not even-handedness that I mean to imply. It’s that Obama, speaking to the Arab world, made a point of saying and reiterating that America views Israel’s security as “paramount.” (I just looked it up — it means “supreme”; “above others in rank or authority.”)

To me, this is the Obama who told Palestinians in Ramallah that they would have to give up the right of return, and who criticized the Palestinian Authority for failing to live up to its commitments. It’s the Obama who told the teacher’s union that educators should be held accountable for their performance — and who was booed for it at union appearances, ever after.

Obama went on to say:

What I want to communicate is the fact that in all my travels throughout the Muslim world, what I’ve come to understand is that regardless of your faith — and America is a country of Muslims, Jews, Christians, non-believers — regardless of your faith, people all have certain common hopes and common dreams.

Why, though, did he pick Al Arabiya? Why not Haaretz?

The answer is very clear. As the AP notes in its lead: “[it’s] part of a concerted effort to repair relations with the Muslim world that were damaged under the previous administration.”

Obama, no doubt, will be criticized for speaking positively of King Abdullah’s peace plan, which offers pan-Arab recognition of Israel in exchange for Israel’s withdrawl from Arab lands captured in 1967, including the Golan Heights. (The poster on the Al Arabiya Web site quoted above commented: “The Saudi Plan is bulls***: It signals another chance for the destruction of Israel in exchange for ‘recognition.'”)

But here, from the transcript, is exactly what Obama said:

Look at the proposal that was put forth by King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia — I might not agree with every aspect of the proposal, but it took great courage — to put forward something that is as significant as that. I think that there are ideas across the region of how we might pursue peace.

And we should remember, as Haaretz noted, Israeli President Shimon Peres, speaking to world leaders last year, lauded Abdullah for his plan, calling it “a serious opening for real progress.”

What was striking to me about the interview was not so much the overt overture of friendship to the Muslim world, but the corresponding subtlty of the appeal. Picking up on a question from the journalist, Obama noted that the U.S. was not nor has it ever been a “colonial power.”

My job is to communicate to the American people that the Muslim world is filled with extraordinary people who simply want to live their lives and see their children live better lives. My job to the Muslim world is to communicate that the Americans are not your enemy. We sometimes make mistakes. We have not been perfect. But if you look at the track record, as you say, America was not born as a colonial power, and that the same respect and partnership that America had with the Muslim world as recently as 20 or 30 years ago, there’s no reason why we can’t restore that.

Obama is not only speaking their language. He’s aligning us with them. In the 19th and 20th centuries, afterall, Muslims were colonized by Russia, Holland, Britain, and France, from West Africa across two continents to Indonesia. Obama, by picking up the questioner’s language, is saying: We were born in the same kind of struggle.

It seems to me that if Obama can shift Muslim perceptions of the United States, even incrementally — then we will have much more soft power, more clout in our dealings with Iran, and more influence on the pan-Arab mindset. And, of course, fewer Muslims will be inclined to sign up for jihad. (The Arab journalist himself noted that with Obama’s election, Ayman al-Zawahiri and Osama bin Laden “seem very nervous.”)

All of which ultimately benefits Israel.