As Obama remains quiet on Gaza attacks, Arabs grow skeptical on hopes

Obama's Transition

January 04, 2009|By Liz Sly | Liz Sly,Chicago Tribune

BEIRUT - President-elect Barack Obama's silence on the weeklong conflict in Gaza is drawing criticism among Arabs who have grown skeptical about hopes that his administration will break with the Mideast policies of the Bush era.

Obama, who is moving to Washington this weekend, was on vacation in Hawaii when the crisis erupted and has made no statements, either about Israel's bombing of Gaza or Palestinian rocket attacks against Israel. His aides say that he does not wish to address foreign-policy issues in any way that could send "confusing signals" about U.S. policy as long as President George W. Bush is in office.

"President-elect Obama is closely monitoring global events, including the situation in Gaza, but there is one president at a time," said Brooke Anderson, chief national security spokeswoman for the Obama transition team.

Arab commentators maintain, however, that Obama did comment on foreign affairs when he condemned the terrorist attacks in Mumbai, India. They suggest that his refusal to speak out on Gaza implies indifference to the plight of Palestinians or even complicity with Israel's bombing campaign.

The satellite TV network Al Jazeera contrasted footage of Obama playing golf in Hawaii with scenes of the carnage in Gaza, by way of highlighting what it called "the deafening silence from the Obama team."

"People recall his campaign slogan of change and hoped that it would apply to the Palestinian situation," said Jordanian analyst Labib Kamhawi, speaking from Amman, Jordan. "So they look at his silence as a negative sign. They think he is condoning what happened."

Kamhawi added, "If he does not want to talk politics yet, at least he could address the humanitarian suffering taking place."

It is not only the Arab world that has noticed the president-elect's silence: At a gathering of celebrities in London on Friday to condemn Israel's assault, speakers called on Obama to speak out. Such calls underscore the challenge confronting a president-elect who has promised change and who might now face unrealistically high expectations as to how far that change will go.

Obama has said it is one of his priorities to restore America's image among Muslims. But Arabs enthusiastic about the departure of Bush say they have already been disappointed by his appointments of key aides whom they identify with pro-Israeli policies, such as his nominee for secretary of state, Hillary Clinton.

Osama Hamdan, the Hamas representative in Lebanon, called Obama's silence "strange" and said it suggested he was fearful of offending Israel. But he said he understood that it would be difficult for Obama to speak out and also to make any kind of impact in the Middle East after he takes office.

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