He may have danced the night away at inaugural balls, but Barack Obama wasted no time in getting down to business on Wednesday morning. Reaffirming his vow to reach out to his counterparts in the Middle East, he promptly phoned Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, Jordanian King Abdullah II and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas—promising to engage in Israeli-Palestinian peace efforts. But he wasn't through yet. Within hours, word began leaking out from diplomatic sources that he would likely tap former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell as the special envoy to the Middle East, a role he played during President Clinton's last efforts at Israeli-Palestinian peace talks nearly a decade ago.
From her vantage point in the West Bank, Diana Buttu was watching Obama's first moves in the Middle East with interest. A former legal advisor for the PLO's negotiation team in 2000, she escorted Mitchell around the Palestinian territories and wrote some of the Palestinian statements that would become part of the Mitchell Report. Since then, the Canadian-born Buttu has served as an advisor to Fatah's Mahmoud Abbas, taught law at Birzeit University, and maintained her own law practice. Although Buttu was affiliated with Hamas' rival party, she has attributed the group's rise to power to the failure of Fatah's negotiations and inaction from Abbas. After years of talk and little action, she says, people will need to see concrete improvements if their faith in Fatah's negotiation strategy is to be restored. While expectations may be soaring in Washington, she adds, they're much lower in the Middle East. From the West Bank, she chatted with NEWSWEEK's Katie Paul about how much of a potential for 'change' people in the Palestinian territories actually see in Barack Obama.
NEWSWEEK: It seems the conventional wisdom throughout much of the Middle East has been that Barack Obama won't really change much on the ground there. In light of his address to the Muslim world Tuesday and his announcements Wednesday, is that still the case?
BUTTU: People see both positive and negative in Barack Obama. The negative is that leading up to his inauguration, he didn't really say a whole lot about the Palestinian situation. In fact, he went out of his way to show his pro-Israel credentials. There was a sense that he wasn't going to do much for people here, because he stayed quiet on the massacre in Gaza and kept saying there was only one president at a time. But he didn't stay silent on a host of other issues—the attacks in Mumbai, the economy. The closing of Gitmo is positive.
What about the phone calls he made to Arab leaders?
Again, there's both positive and negative to him calling Abbas. It's a negative because there are some real questions about Abbas's constitutionality and legitimacy as a leader. Technically, his term ended on Jan. 9. Now, it's a big question whether he is the actual Palestinian president. So the question becomes whether or not Obama is going to deal with the democratically elected Hamas government.
And George Mitchell's expected appointment?
I think the appointment of Mitchell is an especially interesting one, because he was the last person President Clinton put on the issue before he left office. That seems to say that Obama is picking up where that process left off eight years ago. I took Mitchell around when he came here for his fact-finding mission, and he was stunned by the amount of settlement activity and human-rights abuses that he saw. Everyone was satisfied with the report, but the Bush administration kind of swept it under the rug. Now, with Obama, the question becomes what he's going to do with this process he's picking up.
Obama made a pretty direct address to the Muslim world in his inaugural address. How are people responding to that?
Sure, people heard that part about not blaming the West and leaders being judged by what they build. It was an important comment. Certainly, a lot of introspection needs to happen in the Arab world. But a lot of the reason there's so much resentment of the West in the Arab world is that their governments have served as puppet regimes. So, there is plenty of dissent in the Arab world, but dissent is not fostered; the opposite is. It's hard to say "don't blame the West" when in fact the West played a big role in creating the situation.
Oftentimes, it seems, many of the governments in the region tend to divert attention to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in order to keep people from challenging them on domestic problems. How much of that resentment and caution is actually happening at the grassroots level?
I share your sense of that, but I think it's too early to tell. Yes, at times, Arab leaders tend to deflect their inadequacies by laying blame elsewhere, which is why I say introspection is necessary. The problem is, at the same time, dissent is never fostered. Israel is the largest recipient of donor money. The second in the Middle East is Egypt, which is a regime that has propped up laws silencing dissent for 30 years. There were mass protests in Egypt over the government's refusal to open up Gaza border crossing, and those were ignored and repressed. But Obama remained silent on that. I think the only way we're going to see a sea change in opinion is if the Palestinian issue is dealt with.
At that grassroots level, what was the immediate response to Obama's inauguration and to that section of the speech, though?
In the Palestinian street, there's a bit of a split. Some are saying same old, same old. Others say let's give him a chance. No one thinks he's a knight in shining armor, but there is a sense that if you give him a chance he might just come through. But then again, eight years ago when Bush was elected there was that same hopeful sense. Bush came in talking about freedom, freedom, freedom, and many Palestinians thought that maybe he was talking about liberating them. After the last eight years, they're more cynical.
Apart from the monstrous task of negotiating a peace agreement, what smaller, early actions from Obama would make people perk up and view him differently?
There's one absolute no-cost fix for Obama: pressuring Israel to open up the border crossings. It costs nothing and would mean everything. Anything needed in terms of building supplies comes from Israel, so that is necessary for any reconstruction of everything destroyed in the last month. It will do a lot to alleviate the humanitarian disaster in Gaza. In the medium-term, push Israel to stop settlement construction. Every president has spoken about that need, but nobody put any teeth behind those words. So that would indicate a change.
What about a generational split? In the United States, a big part of Obama's support came from young people.
Here it's somewhat the opposite. The older generation is more excited than the younger generation, since they've lived through the different presidents and been involved in the process. Generally, young people are not as in tune with politics, and the ones that are tend to be very cynical. Most are simply coping. My students have had to deal with four-hour checkpoints just to get to class. People in their 30s, 40s, or 50s, on the other hand, have lived through two uprisings, seen the rise and fall of the peace process, and have more reason to think he might be different.
So no Obama t-shirts in Ramallah, huh?
Actually, there are some fun stories. During the election, a group of Islamic University students went on Skype and called random Americans, explaining who they were and asking them to vote for Obama. In the West Bank, there was a bakery that had created something like the largest pita bread shaped like Obama's face. But after the Palestinian elections, the inauguration comes fast, so that kind of excitement about Obama ended with the election. People were happy he was elected, there was a sense of relief and sense that he would be different from John McCain, but the mania stopped. People assumed that he would then have ability to speak out, and they wondered why he didn't.
Tell me a little bit more about your time taking George Mitchell around back in 2001.
Senator Mitchell was very good in that he recognized that the settlements were causing a great deal of instability in the Middle East. It was a great report and a really remarkable trip. Just before Christmas in 2000, we took him through the Gaza Strip to Khan Younis. There was a checkpoint that Israelis had put in place dividing northern and southern Gaza, because of a settlement close to the water, and if there was a single settler's car on that road they would block off all Palestinian traffic. Remember, there were about 8,000 settlers versus 1.5 million Palestinians in Gaza, yet one Israeli car could bring all traffic to a standstill. We had called ahead to ensure that we'd be able to get through, but for whatever reason we still got stuck in that. He sat there at that checkpoint and was just livid. But overall, he was very thoughtful, very measured in his words. He got it, you know? He saw it and he recognized that it was not right. That takes you out of your loneliness. One of the problems with living here is that you often feel like you're seeing all these things and no one cares. So that was very uplifting.
Do Palestinians generally have a sense of who Obama is and what his appointment could mean? Is he a popular figure?
Amongst politicians, he's very well known and highly respected, but on the street, no. People are going to be looking more for deeds—the opening up of crossings and the announcement of a settlement.