After many years of deepening suspicion and estrangement, dramatic political developments in both the Middle East and the United States are starting to improve the perceptions Arabs and Americans have of each other.
Arab states are beginning to rethink their national interests, especially regarding Israel. At the same time, across the Atlantic, our own country stands on the brink of a parallel transformation, one that bodes well for the Middle East and its future.
Barack Obama’s nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate has astounded many around the world, especially in the Middle East. The symbolism of a black man with a Muslim middle name running for the presidency of the United States is having a profound impact on the perception of America among Arabs and Muslims.
The possibility of an Obama presidency could strengthen East-West relations at a more fundamental level than specific policies.
These changing trends in the region and in the United States provide new opportunities for Americans in the Middle East, and for peace between Israel and the Palestinians.
For the first time, Arab countries are seeing Palestine as a business destination, not a charity case.
Qatar is investing $350 million in Palestine’s infrastructure by building an entire city, called Rawabi, between the West Bank towns of Ramallah and Nablus.
Creating jobs in construction and providing housing for more than 40,000 people, Qatari investors are demonstrating confidence about the city’s future.
This project is undertaken in partnership with the Palestinian businessman Bashar Masri. The deal itself was announced at the first Palestine Investment Conference in Bethlehem, in which businessmen from Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, UAE, Jordan, Egypt, as well other parts of the world committed to 1.4 billion USD in business partnerships for Palestine.
At the same time as investing in Palestine, Qatar is building its diplomatic relations with Israel.
Last April, Israel’s foreign minister Tzipi Livni came to the Qatari capital with a clear message for the Arab world: she will visit any Arab country that will invite her.
The benefits of Qatar’s open relations with Israel are evident in their business investment in the Palestinian territories.
The cooperative relationships that ensue — economically between Qatar and Palestine, and diplomatically between Qatar and Israel — result in a mutual Israeli-Palestinian interest in promoting Qatari engagement that creates political and economic cooperation, and promotes stability.
The solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict will almost certainly be based on developing this kind of trust and economic cooperation.
With an evolving understanding of their countries’ national interests, Arab leaders are beginning to see the strategic potential of relations with Israel.
For the past sixty years, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has been the defining factor in Israeli’s largely antagonistic relations with the Arab world. The traditional Arab understanding has held that a solution to the conflict has to precede normalization of relations with Israel.
A standard argument is that Arab leaders might wish to explore ties to Israel, but that public opinion would require a sense of diplomatic progress and even-handed American engagement to consent.
Two major changes on the ground are making this argument less compelling.
First, the split between Hamas and Fatah and their failure to reconcile through Saudi mediation efforts disillusioned many Arabs, and has given Arab leaders more political space to develop relations with Israel.
Second, Arabs in direct confrontation with Israel, such as Syria and its allies in Hamas and Hezbollah, are now willing and able to negotiate directly with Israel.
This is not to suggest that Arab leaders have given up on the Palestinian cause. Rather, the apparent readiness for public engagement with Israel suggests an enhanced ability to promote Palestinian issues in the context of their own national interests.
A more open-minded, less paranoid, attitude towards Israel gives hope for the region’s future. For example, last month Bahrain appointed a Jewish woman to serve as its new ambassador to the United States, in spite of spurious charges that her loyalties might lie with Israel.
To heal the wounds between Arab and American societies, movement on both sides is needed.
The changes in attitude developing among Arab states are certainly a key to improving East-West relations. At the same time, in the United States, a man with the middle name Hussein is speaking of hope and change, both within our country and in our relations with the rest of the world.
Arab public opinion, especially the youth, are paying close attention to his message. Given that 60 percent of the Arab population is under the age of thirty, Obama’s message could prove a very important element in repairing Arab-American relations.