CAIRO (AFP) — Arabs were hopeful on Wednesday that President Barack Obama will amend US policy on the Middle East, while Israel expects little change in the wake of its deadly assault on Gaza.
Egypt, a close Washington ally with ties both to Israel and Palestinians, urged Obama to place the Palestinian cause at the top of his agenda as the Islamist Hamas faction said it will judge Obama by his acts.
“We will judge him by his policies and actions on the ground and how he will learn lessons from the mistakes of the previous administrations, especially that of George Bush and his criminal and unjust policies,” said Hamas spokesman Fawzi Barhum.
Hamas expects Obama “to respect the will of the Palestinian people, support their usurped rights and their right to defend themselves, away from any pressure or bias in favour of Israel,” Barhum said in Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak cabled Obama to congratulate him and said: “This region is looking forward to your handling of the Palestinian cause from the first day of your tenure.”
“It is an urgent priority and the key to all the other difficult crises of the Middle East,” said Mubarak, whose country is seeking to negotiate a lasting truce between Israel and Hamas, which controls the Gaza Strip.
Mubarak’s message seems to have been received.
Obama phoned Palestinian president Mahmud Abbas on Wednesday, pledging to work toward a “durable peace” in the Middle East in what Palestinians said was his first call to a foreign leader.
Israeli leaders expressed confidence Obama’s policy will not differ too much from those of the Bush administration, which strongly backed the Jewish state.
“The core policy of the United States will certainly not change,” Israeli Deputy Prime Minister Chaim Ramon said.
“This policy has two principles: the struggle against terrorism and the need to achieve peace on the basis of two states.”
Senior Likud MP Yuval Steinitz recalled Obama’s “fruitful” talks with opposition party leader and former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, saying ties between the two men would be “excellent.”
Netanyahu is widely tipped to emerge as prime minister after the February 10 elections.
“I took away the impression that Barack Obama understood our distress very well, as well as the cruelty of the enemies we face,” Netanyahu said on Tuesday.
Obama visited Israel as a Democratic candidate, offering firm support for the Jewish state and warning a nuclear-armed Iran would be a serious threat.
This week he plans to name former Northern Ireland peacemaker George Mitchell as his Middle East envoy, The Washington Post reported, and the US Senate us due to confirm Hillary Clinton’s nomination as secretary of state.
Gulf Arab observers said they did not expect Obama to compromise Washington’s strategic alliance with Israel.
“Those who think US policy will reverse 180 degrees are mistaken because they raise the ceiling of hope too much,” said Kuwaiti political analyst Sami al-Nasef.
The Lebanese newspaper Al-Akhbar, which is close to the Hezbollah-led minority in parliament, predicted that “with Obama, US foreign policy in the Middle East will significantly change, especially as concerns Iran.”
And the world’s largest Muslim body, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference, urged Obama to help foster a constructive dialogue between Islam and the West.
“We warmly welcome your expressed desire to give a major address in a Muslim nation soon after you assume the presidency and hope it will mark the beginning of a more fruitful and better-informed dialogue between the West and the Muslim world,” said the OIC which represents 1.5 billion Muslims in 57 countries.
Obama kept a guarded silence during Israel’s 22-day military offensive on Gaza that killed more than 1,300 Palestinians and which only ended on Sunday, just two days before the inauguration.
But the tide of global hope that has surged with Obama’s arrival has not reached Gaza, where more than 400 children were among the dead.
“Obama won’t bring my husband back to life,” said Leila Khalil. “He was martyred and left me with six children to feed on my own. And Obama won’t repair our house that was damaged in the (air) raids.”