President Obama on Tuesday hailed reports of a partial halt of Israeli settlement activity as a sign that his administration’s efforts to rejuvenate the Middle East peace process were finding traction.
“There has been movement in the right direction,” Obama said during an Oval Office meeting with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. “I am encouraged by some of the things I am seeing on the ground.”
While many analysts suggested Obama’s talks with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in May were chilly and unproductive, the U.S. president insisted that was not the case.
“I think the Israeli government has taken its discussions with us very seriously,” Obama said. “My hope is we are going to see movement not just from the Israelis but from the Palestinians around issues of incitement and security and from Arab states that show their real willingness to engage Israel. If all sides are willing to move off of the rut that we’re in currently, then I think there is an extraordinary opportunity to make progress.”
The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Israel has not issued new construction permits in settlement areas for months. Israel’s housing minister was quoted as saying in a TV interview that a “waiting period” had been imposed in order to advance U.S.-led peace efforts, though he insisted it was not a formal moratorium.
Mubarak did not comment directly on the Israeli move, though he said he has had good talks with Israeli leaders. But the Egyptian president said he told Obama that Israeli suggestions of an interim agreement with the Palestinians were not viable.
“This issue has been going on 60 years, and we cannot afford wasting more time because violence will increase,” the 81-year-old Mubarak said, speaking through an interpreter. “We need to move to the final status solution….The Israelis said talk about a temporary solution. I told them, ‘No, forget about the temporary solution, forget about temporary borders.’ That’s why I came today to talk to President Obama to move forward on this issue.”
Mubarak’s visit was his first to the Oval Office in more than seven years. President George W. Bush’s public emphasis on promoting democracy in the Middle East – which often focused on freer elections in Egypt and the release of political prisoners there — led to a decided chill in U.S.-Egyptian relations.
Since taking office, Obama has made a concerted effort to improve relations – a point he alluded to on Tuesday.
“What I can say is different from the United States perspective is that even in the midst of the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, we started dealing with this issue on day one,” Obama said in what seemed to be a swipe at some predecessors, including Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who built little momentum in their peace efforts until late in their presidencies. “We didn't wait until year six or year seven, after I had been reelected, before we started taking this on. We started dealing with this issue immediately….”
“The Obama Administration has prioritized the Israeli-Palestinian conflict over issues of democratization because they believe Egypt is crucial to resolving the conflict,” said Samer Shehata, a professor of Arab studies at Georgetown. “They’ve made nice with Mubarak.”
The White House gave added prestige to the Mubarak government by choosing Cairo as the site of a highly-anticipated speech Obama made to the Muslim world in June. The address was seen as solidifying Mubarak’s view of Egypt as a pivotal player in the Middle East, though analysts said the country won the address largely because other venues were ruled out as unsafe or unfeasible.
When cameras were allowed into the Oval Office Tuesday, Mubarak was quick to mention the Cairo trip—and to gush over his host’s speech. “It was a very strong address and it removed all doubts about the United States and the Muslim world,” the Egyptian president said. “His great, fantastic address there has removed all those doubts.”
Shehata said Mubarak’s long absence from Washington was a sign of how the relationship deteriorated under Bush, even though security and economic cooperation continued.
“At the level of public relations, things were sour,” the professor said. “President Mubarak used to, as a tradition or custom, come to Washington every spring to meet with the president. He’s been doing that longer than most Egyptians have been alive.”
During his return to the White House Tuesday, Mubarak alluded to the chilliness, even as he dismissed its significance. “Despite some of the hoops we had with previous administrations, this did not change the nature of our bilateral relations,” Mubarak said.
The Obama Administration’s embrace of the Mubarak government has disappointed human rights campaigners and members of Egyptian opposition groups, some of whom were scheduled to protest outside the White House today.
Shehata said he expected the Obama Administration would do less scolding of Mubarak in public, relegating human rights and democracy issues solely to the private presidential discussions.
“Will a private chat in the Oval Office when it’s just Obama and Mubarak there have any impact? Probably, the answer is no,” Shehata said.
During the press availability with Mubarak, Obama said the pair had “a frank and honest exchange” about areas of disagreement. He did not elaborate.
In advance of the meeting, Mubarak allies suggested none too subtly that pushing too much reform or democracy on Egypt could produce chaos that would not be in U.S. interests.
“Western analysts understandably have an instinctual suspicion of the all-encompassing power of the ‘typical’ Middle Eastern state. But this view is outdated,” Abdelmonem Said, the head of a state-supported think tank, wrote Monday in a Washington Post op-ed. “The United States and Egypt must contend with the looming prospect of regional state fragmentation.”
Middle East analysts were also watching closely to see what role, if any, there was in the White House talks for Mubarak’s son Gamal, 46. He visited Washington in March amid talk that he is being groomed to succeed his aging father in a presidential election scheduled next year.
President Mubarak was scheduled to visit Washington in May of this year, but the visit was canceled due to the unexpected death of one of his grandsons. The Egyptian leader last visited the U.S. in 2004, when he met Bush at his ranch in Crawford, Texas.