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How does Obama play "Middle East card"?
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16:01, June 04, 2009

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US President Barack Obama embarked on his first regional Middle East mission on Tuesday, June 3, which would take him to Saudi Arabia and Egypt, both influential Arab nations. President Obama would spend a few hours in Riyadh before heading for Egypt, where he will make a keynote speech in Cairo.

This is Obama's first-ever trip to the region since becoming president in late January, which has two obvious objectives, namely, to declare his goodwill to the Muslim world so as to help improve the image of the United States among Muslim people worldwide and to advance the Middle East peace process.

President Obama has multiple purposes in his visit to Saudi Arabia. The first and foremost is to urge this oil-rich Arab nation to go on contributing in stabilizing the global oil market; the second is to discuss with it the Iran issue, which is of concern to both nations; and the third is to ask the Saudi government to persuade Nawaz Sharif, leader of the Pakistan Muslim League (PML-N), and Prime Minister Asif Ali Zardari to compromise to each other and reconcile themselves to the prospect of stabilizing the situation in Pakistan.

The fourth purpose of his visit is to urge Saudi Arabia to beef up its support to the power of Mahmoud Abbas, president of the Palestinian Authority and, the last but not the least is to ask the Saudi government to lead the Arab world in indicating some goodwill signs to Israel, so as to facilitate restarting the Palestinian-Israeli peace talks.

Israel is reported to have appealed to the Saudi leadership to open an interest office in Tel Aviv, and this may be regarded as a signal toward the recognition of Israel. The Saudi government has so far exercised its maximum caution, and so Obama's lobbying can hardly produce any effect.

In fact, Obama is very clear in mind that only Israel takes an initiative to show some signs of goodwill, can Palestine and the rest of the Arab world have favorable responses. At present, the chief demand of the Arab countries is for Israel to freeze its settlement activity and remove all roadblocks in the West Bank, and to accept a proposal for the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside it.

Successive U.S. administrations have all urged Israel to halt settlement activity, but they have done little to impose pressures upon it. In 2004, former President George W. Bush gave a tactic manifestation of consent to the settlement activity for the excuse of "natural growth" in his letter to then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. By natural growth, Israel refers to construction within the boundaries of existing settlement to accommodate growing families.

On his part, President Obama, however, does not recognize at all the deal Bush made with Airel Sharon, and instead insisted that settlements "had to be stopped." He has repeated the call for Israel to stop settlement construction. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said very explicitly last Wednesday that the U.S. government wants a halt to all settlement construction, including "natural growth".

During his interview on Monday or June 1 with TV reporters, President Obama also repeated his call to Israel and said emphatically that he wants "to see a stop to settlements–not some settlements, not outposts, not natural growth exception", and this is its obligation.

Obama is firm and steadfast with his attitude as he has come to see clearly only with the settlement of the Palestinian-Israeli conflicts, can the whole Middle East achieve a long-standing stability and peace and can the U.S. fundamentally improve its ties with Arab countries and the Muslim world. He told visiting Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu last week at the White House that the U.S. sees stopping settlements as key to peace deal that would see Palestinian state created alongside Israel. He also told Netanyahu a halt to the settlement construction and the creation of a Palestinian state conform to the long-term security and wellbeing of Israelis.

Nevertheless, Netanyahu spoke to Israeli Parliament on Monday, June 1 in defense of his decision and cited Obama's request as an unwise demand. Moreover, Netanyahu said that Israel cannot "freeze life" in settlements, according to a senior official in the premier's office.

Since 1967, Israel has built a total of 120 settlements on the occupied territories west of the Jordan River, now home to 280,000 Jewish people in the West Bank, and 12 settlements in East Jerusalem, according to relevant statistics. Hence, Mahmoud Abbas during his recent visit to the United States ruled out any possibility for restarting peace talks until Israel commits to Palestinian statehood and a settlement freeze.

In Egypt on Thursday, President Obama would make a speech to the Muslim people worldwide. Sources acknowledged that Obama will make the speech at elite Cairo University aiming at strengthening the US ties with the Muslim world. However, people cannot expect that his speech in Cairo would change everything and put an end once and for all to all negative impressions the unfair U.S. Middle East policies have left on people worldwide if he fails to come up with concrete policy measures.

By People's Daily senior reporter in U.S. Li Xuejiang, and translated by PD Online

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