Tolan on NPR: Arab world waiting on more even-handed policy from U.S.

Posted February 13, 2009

Journalism professor Sandy Tolan was a featured guest on National Public Radio's Feb. 13 News and Notes program about President Barack Obama's foreign policy in the Middle East.

Tolan, an expert on the Middle East and author of The Lemon Tree: An Arab, a Jew, and the Heart of the Middle East, said Obama chose to do one of his first interviews with an Arab language television station in which Obama said relations with the Middle East would improve.

"And clearly (Obama) said some things that he felt would indicate a change in tone, and clearly it does," Tolan said. "He talked about offering a hand of friendship, the language we use matters, let’s listen, we have to use a language of respect. These are all powerful messages in terms of shifting the tone. But what many people across the Arab world are waiting for is a sense that there will be a more even-handed policy."

Tolan said Obama's appointment of George Mitchell as the American special envoy to the Middle East is widely regarded in the Arab world as a positive because he’s considered far more even-handed than previous U.S. envoys.

"But it’s notable that there is still quite a bit of disappointment because President-elect Obama did not say anything really critical of Israel during the siege in Gaza - the war in Gaza - in which 1,300 Palestinians and 13 Israelis were killed," Tolan said. "And in addition to that, there’s a sense that even though George Mitchell is considered someone who is going to more even-handed, he didn’t say much of anything in his recent trip to the region about the expanding settlements."

NPR asked Tolan if the United States squandered an opportunity by not addressing the recent conflict in Gaza.

"I think we’re going to see a sharp turn to the right in Israel, and I think this will essentially be, unfortunately, the death nail in the two-state solution. There has been so much physical change to the landscape in the West Bank," Tolan said, citing an increase in settlers and a large number of checkpoints in a small area. "It’s becoming increasingly hard to see how there could even be a two-state solution. ... I think eventually people are going to start looking at other options."

Regarding Iran, NPR asked Tolan about the overtures of strengthening diplomatic relations.

“The initial indications are certainly more positive in terms of a potential dialogue being opened up,” Tolan said. “(Iran) President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad sent a pretty conciliatory letter of congratulations to Barack Obama when he was elected.”

However, Tolan said many Iranians - not just Ahmadinejad - have sore feelings of whether there really will be a genuine two-way dialogue.

"Whether or not this would end up being something that would have the Iranians truly stop their policy of moving toward nuclear weapons is something that remains to be seen," Tolan said.

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