Tags: arabs | hillary | cabinet

Arabs Not Happy About Secretary of State Hillary

Monday, 01 Dec 2008 12:18 PM

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BEIRUT — President-elect Barack Obama's choice of Hillary Clinton as secretary of state gladdens Israel, but does not overjoy Arabs and Iranians keen for a new start after eight years of perceived U.S. policy calamities.

Clinton talked tougher than Obama when they were vying to be the Democratic presidential candidate, decrying her rival's "naive" call for direct talks with foes such as Iran and North Korea and vowing to "obliterate" Iran if it attacked Israel.

"She's committed to the peace process. She's committed to fighting extremism and terrorism. She's committed to the U.S.-Israeli relationship," a senior Israeli official said.

Israeli political scientist Shmuel Sandler of Bar Ilan University near Tel Aviv voiced similar satisfaction, saying, "As far as Israel is concerned, this is a good appointment."

Israelis are warier about Obama's pick as national security adviser, retired Marine Gen. James Jones, whose confidential report in July on how Israelis and Palestinians had met their security commitments was critical of Israel, diplomats said.

Palestinians, who saw U.S. policy tilt even further toward Israel under outgoing President George W. Bush, acknowledged the future secretary of state's grasp of the issues her husband Bill Clinton grappled with during two terms in the White House.

"We should not be starting from scratch with her," said Nimer Hammad, an aide to Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas. "We can only judge her after she is in the job."

Obama and Clinton are inheriting a distinctly gloomy outlook for progress toward settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and Washington's Arab allies are not expecting a new dawn.

"Anyone would be better than the last administration," said Egyptian political analyst Diaa Rashwan. "But I don't think there will be real change in the Middle East."

Obama's entourage contained many pro-Israeli politicians and analysts,Rashwan said. Any major policy shift would focus on Iraq and perhaps Iran, not the Israeli-Palestinian dispute.

"Obama will try to make a big change in Iraq," Rashwan said, alluding to the next president's promise to withdraw troops within 16 months of taking office on Jan. 20. "He can't make two big changes in the same area . . . It would be (political) suicide."

In Saudi Arabia, pessimism about Clinton's pro-Israeli fervor is tempered by her hard line on Iran, whose rise as a regional Shi'ite power, unwittingly assisted by Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, has alarmed the Sunni-ruled kingdom.

"Her hawkishness on Iran would be welcome and a break from Obama's dovish instincts," said Saudi political analyst Khaled al-Dakhil. "It seems she'll be a powerful secretary of state. I don't think the Syrians and Iranians will like it."

Syria is eager for the United States to kick-start stalled peace talks with Israel, but a diplomat in contact with Syrian officials said they are cautious about prospects for detente.

"They recognize that she was much tougher on Syria than Obama during the campaign, and that Obama himself may maintain a tough line with Syria," the diplomat said.

Syrian Deputy President Farouq al-Shara said last week that Damascus felt "limited optimism" toward the new administration.

"Those close to Obama say he wants a dialogue with Syria, which is important," Shara told Baath Party officials.

Some in Syria anticipate that Clinton will at least outperform her predecessor, Condoleezza Rice.

"The legacy of her husband in the region is relatively good and she knows the conflicts better than Rice," said political commentator Thabet Salem. "The key word here is relatively."

Iran, which has defied world efforts to curb its nuclear goals, poses a huge diplomatic challenge and, some analysts argue, as big an opportunity to the Obama-Clinton team.

Yet after nearly 30 years of undiluted hostility between the two countries, reaching a new accommodation will be hard.

Mohammad Marandi, head of North American Studies at Tehran University, said he believed U.S. policy would perforce have to take account of a shifting balance of power in the region.

"The United States is in a much weaker position to bully people in the region," he argued. "A new administration will have the opportunity to behave more rationally to ease tension."

But Obama's nominations, including Clinton and an equally pro-Israeli Emanuel Rahm as White House chief of staff, were hardly encouraging for Tehran, Marandi said.

"The change we were hearing about has not materialized. The fact that neocons are pleased with the choice (of Clinton) is very revealing. The Clinton administration was not very progressive at all."

© Thomson Reuters 2008 All rights reserved

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