Obama and Harper Strike Different Tones on the Middle East

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    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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It was to be expected that commentators and observers in the region would take notice of President Barack Obama’s State of the Union address, especially given his comments on Syria, Iran and Guantanamo Bay. The reaction, for the most part, has been muted, with most commentators noting the unremarkable content of the address. Meanwhile, another North American leader, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, has received a lot of attention for his remarks during a visit to Israel and the Occupied Territories. Mr. Harper’s declaration of Canada’s unconditional support for the state of Israel was welcome news for many in Tel Aviv, but (predictably) not everyone was pleased by it.

Commenting on President Obama’s declaration that it was still his intention to close down the Guantanamo Bay detention center, the Khaleej Times editorial took a skeptical tone: “It was a moment of déjà vu as Barack Obama spoke on a forgotten lot of inmates in a backyard prison — the notorious Guantanamo detention centre. But in doing so, the United States president made a strong point of resilience and determination to bring the blot on the ideals of American values of freedom to an end….It remains to be seen how Obama choreographs the move, as he wants to write off this troublesome chapter of American involvement in foreign wars with the exit of U.S. troops from Afghanistan by the year-end….Obama’s manifesto of ‘change, we can’ is up for a test, as he reframes his policy priorities for the last three remaining years of his presidency. His promise to act against inherent inequality in the American system should walk the talk.”

The manner in which Mr. Obama addressed the ongoing diplomatic negotiations on the Iranian nuclear  program also received some attention. The U.S. president decided to push back against those who have called for further sanctions, even though, as Jerusalem Post’s Michael Wilner notes, Mr. Obama believes sanctions were instrumental to getting Iran to negotiate: “Threading that needle will be a historic challenge; no one closely involved in the negotiations is particularly optimistic. And yet, in his speech, the president gave the impression that even he is anxious to see the longstanding nuclear crisis finally come to an end….Thus, it seems the president might finally accept that this diplomatic effort is his best and last chance at a peaceful solution to the crisis. Will Iran take that chance? Obama put it bluntly in his speech Tuesday night: ‘We’ll know soon enough.’”

According to an article in the UAE daily The Peninsula, those comments from Obama received an immediate response by the Iranian government that is keen to show that its willingness to negotiate has nothing to do with the sanctions regime: “Iran yesterday dismissed as ‘unrealistic and unconstructive’ comments by U.S. President Barack Obama that international sanctions linked to its nuclear programme had forced Tehran to the negotiating table….Iran has repeatedly rejected suggestions that economic sanctions had forced it to the negotiating table, although last year then president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad admitted the punitive measures had caused ‘problems’. The Islamic republic has also consistently denied its nuclear programme has a military dimension.”

A week before Mr. Obama’s address — and while Secretary of State John Kerry and other U.S. officials were feverishly holding Israeli-Palestinian peace talks together  — Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper gave a full-throttled defense of the state of Israel and its policies, vowing to stand by Israel through “thick and thin.” That remark sparked different responses from the Israelis and the Palestinians, with the latter, according to the Israeli daily Yedioth Ahronoth, needing “convincing”: “At a time of increasing tensions between Israel and Europe over Israel’s ongoing construction in areas acquired in the 1967 war, and amid nervousness over a new American framework peace plan due to be announced any day, Israelis were happy to welcome Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper as one of Israel’s staunchest friends among national leaders. In contrast during his visit to the Palestinian cities of Bethlehem and Ramallah, tension was evident….Some Palestinians were skeptical that Harper could make a real contribution to the Palestinian push for an independent state….But others felt the visit offered a chance to improve the relationship between the Palestinian Authority and Canada.”

It turns out, however, that Mr. Harper’s remarks might have been too strong for even some Israelis, who, as far as Jerusalem Post’s Batsheva Neuer is concerned, might as well learn to accept praise without wallowing in self-criticism: “Harper simply chose to use the podium to highlight the positive, to reinforce Canada’s support and shared values….As a people so accustomed to criticism, and self-criticism, maybe we ought to work on biting our tongues. The Left need not fear Israel’s case will seem less legitimate when its praise isn’t ‘balanced’ by the usual, clichéd critique. There won’t lack opportunities for everyone else to vilify Israel. So let’s, rightists and leftists, give Harper one more standing ovation, listen to our mothers, and ‘just say thank you.’”

But Harper’s visit drew a mixed response not only in the region but, according to a report for the Saudi Gazette by Mohammed Azhar Ali Khan, at home as well: “Canadians are clashing over Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s blind support for Israel. Analyst Scott Reid calls Harper’s trip to Israel an ‘unblemished triumph — one of the most successful foreign visits enjoyed by any prime minister in recent memory.’ Analyst Andrew Coyne declared that much criticism of Israel stems not so much from hatred of Israel, or of Jews, but of the West, of ‘us.’…If the statements of the prime minister and some others make you wonder whether justice, accuracy, universal human rights and truth are disappearing in Canada, the views other Canadians express offer you hope that decency, quest for the truth and justice and fairness are values many Canadians still hold dear and that perhaps Canada will someday again work to build a better world for all of its people.”

Finally, Gulf News’ Qais Ghanem examines Mr. Harper’s rhetoric regarding anti-Semitism and finds him conflating — or worse, using — the threat of anti-Semitic accusation to silence those who would oppose Israel’s policies in the Occupied Territories: “Harper did not mince his words during his trip to Israel. His zealous support of Israel is unparalleled by any other nation, including the U.S. He spoke extensively of anti-Semitism, but the ruse of conflating criticism of the actions of the government of Israel with anti-Semitism to silence the opposition has been used so frequently that many people are beginning to see through it.”

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Middle East In Focus is a synopsis of commentary and news from Middle Eastern and other international media. Its purpose is to provide a succinct and balanced summary of the main developments and views that are often overlooked or not properly reflected in the U.S. media. For the most recent collection of articles on and from the Middle East, please go to: http://mepc.org/articles-commentary/articles-hub. Comments and feedback are welcome at info@mepc.org.


  • Middle East Policy

    Middle East Policy has been one of the world’s most cited publications on the region since its inception in 1982, and our Breaking Analysis series makes high-quality, diverse analysis available to a broader audience.

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