Back in March 2010, months before the Arab revolts erupted, Gen. David Petraeus raised eyebrows when he testified before the Senate Armed Services Committee that the U.S. bias toward Israel in peace negotiations “foments anti-American sentiment” and is a threat to national security because al Qaida and other militant groups exploit the anger to mobilize support.
“Arab anger over the Palestinian question limits the strength and depth of U.S. partnerships with governments and peoples” in the region, Petraeus, who’s now the director of the CIA, testified at the time.
The limitations he described have only deepened now that Egypt, Tunisia, Libya and Yemen have newly installed governments that are eager to chart independent foreign policies.
Meanwhile, Persian Gulf powers, keen to ride the wave of revolt while not necessarily effecting change at home, are taking bold stances in backing Arab revolutionaries in moves that make the United States look reactionary.
While Romney and Obama debate the long-term wisdom of sending weapons to the Syrian rebels who are fighting President Bashar Assad’s regime, Gulf states such as Qatar and Saudi Arabia are the main suppliers of arms. Qatar was also a strong backer of the Libyan rebel movement, and it maintains close ties with the Egyptians.
This week, the tiny Gulf emirate waded into the Palestinian-Israeli conflict when Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al Thani, became the first head of state to visit the Gaza Strip since the militant Islamist group Hamas seized control of it five years ago after winning parliamentary elections. The emir unveiled a $400 million investment project for Gaza, including a new housing development and several roads.
“The visit by the emir of Qatar is a very significant event,” Duss said. “The message there is, ‘We implicitly, if not explicitly, recognize Hamas as the government in Gaza.’ ”
In the United States, the controversial visit led to a small but significant shift in policy: The State Department, which typically condemns official trips to Gaza as support for a group it considers a terrorist organization, deemed the emir’s visit a “humanitarian mission.”
“We share Qatar’s deep concern for the welfare of the Palestinian people, including those residing in Gaza,” State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland said.
While Israeli media crowed that the State Department had gone soft on Hamas, other observers deemed the reaction a sensible response to the U.S. struggle to stay relevant in a changing Middle East. But analysts say it’ll take more than a slightly thawed policy toward Hamas to get Arab governments to view the U.S. as a neutral broker that can save the idea of an independent Palestinian state existing alongside Israel – known as the two-state solution – which Duss described as “on life support.”
Egypt in particular appears determined to emphasize Arab sovereignty after decades under Mubarak, whom many Arabs derided as a puppet ruler for his guardian of the Camp David peace treaty with Israel.
Mubarak’s successor, Mohammed Morsi, was a top official of the Muslim Brotherhood, the mother organization of Hamas. On Monday, Romney mentioned him in the same breath as terrorist groups, a connection that analysts said was unlikely to be helpful.
“Instead of taking the opportunity to see how the changes could break the stalemate, they’re looking backward and seeing how they could possibly make things worse than before,” said Sienkiewicz, the Boston College professor.
Shukrallah, the Egyptian political writer, said the connections could open new channels of influence, noting that the new Egyptian government holds great sway over Hamas. But the next U.S. administration also will have to recognize that the new Arab governments are much more responsive to their citizens, who express solidarity with the Palestinian cause in poll after poll.
Arab leaders, Shukrallah said, “will have to adopt postures that, at least on the surface, are definitely more assertive toward Israel and the Palestinians.” That will mean the U.S. also will have to take firmer stances on issues such as Israeli settlements in the West Bank. “Without a strong U.S. stance, a two-state solution isn’t viable,” he said.