President Obama has failed to deliver on the high expectations for Middle East peace that his election engendered three and a half years ago, according to the Palestinians' top envoy to the United States.
Ambassador Maen Rashid Areikat said Obama's campaign rhetoric and early actions in the White House raised hopes that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict might be within reach.
“We were hoping that things would be different by now,” Areikat said in a wide-ranging interview with reporters. “We were hoping and expecting to be at a different stage-point today.
“Maybe my expectations were higher than [Obama] was planning to do. But at least the projections early when he took office pointed to some real movement in the right direction, and unfortunately it did not materialize.”
Areikat's comments reflect broader Palestinian frustrations with the White House.
The lack of progress on a two-state solution led the Palestinians to unilaterally seek United Nations recognition as a sovereign state last year — a move the Obama administration vowed to block, and Areikat warned that the Palestinians might well try again.
“The Palestinian leadership said that they reserve the right to resort to any and every venue possible to further our objectives,” Areikat said, noting that Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat made that clear to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton when he met with her on June 20, their first meeting in nine months.
“If the political vacuum continues, we will go to the United Nations General Assembly. We are going to explore other venues, and we have the right to do that.”
Clinton also met on June 20 with Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Shaul Mofaz, prompting State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland to declare the peace process “very much alive.”
Areikat, who attended Erekat's meeting with Clinton, wasn't convinced; his gloomy outlook stands in sharp contrast with the Obama administration's early days.
Within days of taking office, Obama raised Palestinian hopes by nominating George Mitchell, a former Senate majority leader who helped broker peace in Northern Ireland as special envoy for Middle East peace. And in a landmark speech to the Muslim world in Cairo in June 2009, Obama recognized Palestinians' right to have a state to call their own.
“Let there be no doubt: The situation for the Palestinian people is intolerable,” Obama said to loud applause. “And America will not turn our backs on the legitimate Palestinian aspiration for dignity, opportunity, and a state of their own.”
The effort began to falter, however, soon after Benjamin Netanyahu became Israel's prime minister in March 2009 and refused to halt settlements, a deal-breaker for the Palestinians. Netanyahu, for his part, temporarily froze settlement construction in the West Bank after coming under U.S. pressure, and demanded that the Palestinians recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
Since then, Obama has been consumed with the lackluster economy and other domestic matters, along with foreign policy challenges in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
Areikat said he doesn’t blame the Obama administration for the lack of progress.
“Nobody doubts that deep inside they want to see the conflict ended,” he said. “Any effort on the part of the administration, be it through the secretary of State or the special envoy to continue to talk to the two sides to try to come up with something is very much appreciated, because they have so many important issues going on.”
Still, he said, elements within the administration were always wary of expending too much political capital on a goal that has eluded U.S. presidents for decades.
“In my view, they played an important role in discouraging the president,” Areikat said. “I'm not arguing whether they were right or wrong ... but that in particular made the president more cautious about his approach."
Areikat declined to name names, but former White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel was reported to have warned Israel's consul general in Los Angeles, Jacob Dayan, as early as December 2009 that the administration would walk away from the conflict if the two sides didn't make concessions.
Emanuel “expressed frustration with the lack of progress with the peace process, but he certainly didn't threaten to walk away from it,” a White House aide told Israel's Haaretz newspaper at the time. “The allegations are completely ridiculous.”
Areikat declined to get dragged into the U.S. presidential race, but said he'd reserve judgment on Mitt Romney until after the election, despite the Republican candidate's tough talk in support of Israel.
“You know and I know that whatever they say before elections is not necessarily whatever they will do after that,” Areikat said. “Once the presidential candidates occupy the office, their behavior will be different. There are certain constraints, certain limitations that a Democrat or a Republican know very well will somehow limit their ability to make positions or declare policies vis-a-vis the Israelis or the Palestinians.”
He did acknowledge that losing Hillary Clinton, who has vowed to step down as secretary of State at the end of Obama's first term, would be a blow.
“We will miss her after she leaves next year because she has shown commitment and devotion to the Palestinian-Israeli issue,” Areikat said. “I'm sure she will continue to try until her last day as secretary of State. And we'll encourage her to continue to try.”