WASHINGTON -- A key obstacle the next U.S. president will face in winning the friendship of Arab countries was clear during Monday night’s foreign policy debate: Israel was mentioned 22 times, the Palestinians just once – and then only in passing.
Resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains one of the Arab world’s top priorities, and the more independent, Islamist-leaning governments that are taking power after last year’s mass uprisings deposed longtime American allies could push the issue to the forefront anew.
But with high political risk and low U.S. voter interest in the topic, revisiting peace negotiations isn’t likely to be a priority for either Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, according to analysts who specialize in the Middle East.
That reluctance is just one more hurdle in the U.S. government’s struggle to regain the regional influence it lost when the popular revolts took out reliable Arab allies, chief among them Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak.
“The real sticking point is Israel and the Palestinians. It’s still the most troubling aspect of relations with the U.S.,” said Hani Shukrallah, a prominent Egyptian journalist who’s the author of the book “Egypt, the Arabs and the World: Reflections at the Turn of the 21st Century.”
The idea that the United States can continue simply “managing” but not resolving the conflict is outdated, analysts said.
Romney made no friends among Arabs when he was caught on video telling donors at a $50,000-a-head fundraiser that Palestinians have “no interest whatsoever” in reaching peace with Israel. If he’s elected president, he said, he’d just “kick the ball down the field” in hopes that one day there’d be a breakthrough that would resolve the conflict, now in its 65th year.
“That is a fantasy,” said Matthew Duss, the director of Middle East progress at the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning Washington research institute. “The status quo is deteriorating, and it’s a brutal status quo, one that, unfortunately, breeds violence.”
“It’s going to be a significant issue whether American governments recognize it or not,” Duss added.
Analysts said Obama seemed outwardly committed to rejuvenated peace negotiations, but that he, too, appeared unwilling to pressure the Israelis on the construction of illegal settlements in the West Bank. Obama’s special envoy to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, veteran Democratic politician George Mitchell, resigned last year out of frustration with the lack of progress.
Given the short shrift the conflict received during Monday’s foreign policy debate and in general on the campaign trail, analysts aren’t convinced that Obama would go much farther than Romney’s plan to “kick the ball down the field.”
“Maybe he’s got it in him, but it might be like Clinton: a little bit too late, waiting until the last two years,” said Matt Sienkiewicz, a professor at Boston College whose research focuses on U.S. investment in Middle Eastern broadcasting initiatives.
Sienkiewicz wrote a short online essay this week in which he compared the candidates’ rhetoric on the Mideast conflict. The headline was “Q. Who lost the presidential debate? A. Israel-Palestine peace.”