Mar 06 2009

Feltman, new state department official, reflects a different tone re Mideast

Published by at 2:11 pm under Articles,Palestinian politics

By Daoud Kuttab

The United States Middle East policy appears to be slowly but gradually changing. US officials are beginning a charm offensive following a successful four day tour in the region for the new secretary of state.

In a briefing by Jeffery Feltman the newly appointed Assistant Secretary of State for the Near East, it was clear that Washington’s tone has changed. Feltman listed all the public steps taken by President Obama since his first days in office. He called Arab leaders in the region (including King Abdullah of Jordan and President Abbas of Palestine) even before calling some of America’s European’s allies. On his first visit outside the White House he visited the state department and announced the appointment of George Mitchell as his special envoy to the region. His first interview was with an the Arab satellite station, Al Arrabiya.

Following the briefing with the US diplomat, Jordanian columnist Jamil Nimri was quick to reflect “there is a new tone coming out of Washington. The new tone coming out of Washington was more than symbolism. The visiting US official repeatedly state that President Obama has made it clear to all that he is “result oriented.” Obama has publicly said that people in the Arab and Islamic world should evaluate him on his deeds and not just his words. Feltman repeated that the new administration is totally and completely focused on the two state solution.

While the real test for the new administration might become evident once the right wing Netanyahu government is formed, an earlier test is looming in regards to the possible formation of a Palestinian unity government. Feltman made it clear that the US is determined to work with and support any new Palestinian government that will be committed to the two state solution. He said that Washington is hoping that the independent Palestinian state can see the light “as fast as possible.” The US will work with all its partners to achieve this goal in a speedy manner, he repeatedly stated.

The position regarding Hamas seems to have slightly loosened up. Previously, US administrations have opposed Palestinian unity governments and insisted that the three conditions set by the international community (recognizing Israel, stopping terror and accepted previous agreement) must be adhered to not only by the Palestinian government as a whole but by the members and the groupings represented in it. So if the guidelines of a new Palestinian government accepts the international requirements and the government includes Hamas members, then Hamas itself will need to accept the conditions before the US will engage with such a government. While Feltman was ambiguous on this issue, it was clear from the tone of the discussion with the senior official that the US will be indeed be looking closely at the guidelines of any new Palestinian government. Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas has been repeatedly quoted saying that Hamas doesn’t need to recognize Israel but that only members of the government including those from Hamas must accepted agreements signed by previous Palestinian governments.

America’s new policy has also taken a slightly different attitude regarding reform and democracy throughout the world. While clearly in support of reform, the Obama administration appears to be taking a more nuanced approach to reform in the Arab world. US state department officials refused to specify how they plan to approach the topic but it was clear that they would like to see the Arab world open up in a liberal and democratic manner. A question posed to Feltman by a Jordanian journalist on the issue was diplomatically responded to by Feltman. Veteran journalist Rana Sabagh noted that in Jordan the government has recently taken a number of step committees to work on political and media reforms in anticipation of the Obama administration. She wanted to know whether the Jordanians had received any directions from Washington on this account or whether Amman was acting to preempt possible future pressure. The US diplomat would only say that the US has a strong commitment to Jordan.

Feltman who along with the White House advisor Dan Shapiro plan to visit Syria has repeated the Obama policy of engaging all countries including Syria and Iran.

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